SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — A group hoping to block transportation of so-called tar sands oil through South Portland — one end of the Portland-Montreal Pipeline — have gathered four times the number of signatures needed to put a prohibitive new ordinance on the November ballot.

If the City Clerk’s office certifies at least 950 signatures of the 3,779 names collected by the group Concerned Citizens of South Portland, city voters will decide this fall whether to allow the controversial bituminous oil to be moved through their port and onto the international market.

The ordinance would prevent upgrades to the pier near Bug Light that would be necessary if pipeline owners decide to reverse its flow and transport the oil from Canada to South Portland. Among the alterations opponents find most offensive are twin 70-foot smokestacks, discussed previously as part of a 2008 pipeline reversal plan that fizzled.

Currently, the 70-year-old, 236-mile-long pipeline transports crude oil from tankers off the coast of South Portland to Montreal.

Environmentalists have opposed the extraction and transportation of the bituminous oil, in part because they say the more corrosive and acidic oil has a greater chance of wearing down pipes and causing toxic leaks near sensitive ecosystems or water bodies. Nationwide, TransCanada Corp.’s proposed Keystone XL pipeline — which would carry the controversial oil sands bitumen from Alberta, Canada, across a delicate Nebraska aquifer on its way to the Gulf of Mexico — has remained a lightning rod for debate over the issue.

Locally, the Portland-Montreal Pipeline passes by a cove of Sebago Lake, which provides drinking water to about 15 percent of Maine’s population.

Portland Pipe Line Corp. officials maintain that they have no current plans to reverse the pipe’s flow or develop its South Portland facilities to accommodate the Canadian oil.

After Concerned Citizens of South Portland announced its petition drive earlier this month, the Portland Pipe Line Corp. issued a statement calling the ordinance effort an “attack on our company, our reputation and the benefits we provide to South Portland and the region.”

The statement went on to note that the PPL has paid more than $25 million in property taxes to South Portland over the past 30 years and has allowed public access to five acres of Bug Light Park that it owns.

Representatives of local environmental groups, such as the Natural Resources Council of Maine and Environment Maine, have argued that it’s only a matter of time before a renewed plan emerges to reverse the pipeline flow and push the thicker oil through. The ordinance proposed by Concerned Citizens of South Portland aims to take that option off the table.

“Many residents have worked hard to chart a plan for a sustainable, prosperous future for South Portland,” South Portland Mayor Tom Blake, who attended a Monday morning press conference on the topic as a private citizen and not as a city representative, said in a statement.

“Tar sands and the related industrial development planned here are not consistent with these efforts,” Blake continued. “Smokestacks and toxic air pollution should not be part of our plan for a healthy future. These are some of the reasons we are supporting the Waterfront Protection Ordinance.”

Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.