SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — South Portland voters on Tuesday defeated a waterfront protection ordinance that would have essentially prevented the loading of oil sand crude, also known as tar sands, onto ships at South Portland’s waterfront.

Voters opposed the ordinance by a roughly 200-vote margin, according to results from the South Portland City Clerk’s office. There were 4,453 votes against the ordinance versus 4,261 votes for the ordinance, according to the clerk’s office.

Judy Berk, a spokeswoman for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, which worked to approve the ordinance, told the Bangor Daily News on Tuesday evening that she was looking into recount rules.

The scene at the Maine Military Museum in South Portland, where the “No” campaign held its election-night party, was jubilant.

“We’re thrilled at the result, and truly thankful to the voters of South Portland who took the time to learn about the ordinance and understand it was overbroad and would have devastated the working waterfront if passed,” Jim Merrill, a campaign spokesman, told the BDN after the preliminary vote tallies were announced.

A spokeswoman for the city clerk’s office said turnout Tuesday was typical for an off-year election.

A citizens group, known as Protect South Portland, collected enough signatures in June to force a city-wide vote on the proposed Waterfront Protection Ordinance. The ordinance sought to prevent the expansion of petroleum-related activities on the South Portland waterfront and, as a result, the potential transportation of tar sands through a 236-mile pipeline, owned by the Portland Pipe Line Corp., that runs from Montreal, through New Hampshire and into western Maine, where it passes Sebago Lake on its way to South Portland’s waterfront.

The Save Our Working Waterfront group, which was led by the Maine Energy Marketers Association, argued the ordinance was too broad as written.

“People quickly comprehended when they read the ordinance that it was not about tar sands,” Wilson, CEO of the Portland Pipe Line Corp., told the BDN on Tuesday night. “It was overly broad and affected the working waterfront as a whole. It would have impacted our businesses and what we could do to take advantage of opportunities available in the future.”

The Portland Pipe Line Corp. has not officially proposed any such project, but Wilson in the past has expressed interest in reversing the flow of its pipeline to carry tar sands from Montreal to South Portland harbor, where it would be loaded onto refinery-bound ships. Currently, Portland Pipe Line pumps crude oil from tankers that arrive in South Portland to refineries in the Montreal area, as it has done since 1941.

Tar sands come from western Canada, primarily Alberta, and consist of bitumen, which is a solid or semisolid petroleum deposit, mixed with sand, water and clay. It does not contain tar.

Proponents of the waterfront protection ordinance argued that bringing tar sands into Maine, via a path that would take it past Sebago Lake, would be an environmental hazard. In addition, those in the pro-ordinance camp cited the potential increase of air pollution caused by the need to burn off toxic chemicals at the pier before the tar sands could be pumped onto the tankers.

The campaign received large amounts of media exposure, as it pitted a citizens group against a campaign funded primarily by petroleum industry groups.

MEMA far outraised Protect South Portland, whose largest single contributor was the Natural Resources Council of Maine. When cash, in-kind contributions and loans are calculated into the equation, MEMA raised nearly $600,000 in support, far outpacing Protect South Portland, which raised roughly $42,000, according to financial disclosure forms filed with the city clerk’s office. The imbalance prompted the ordinance’s local advocates to decry the influence of “out-of-state oil interests.”

However, while the Save Our Working Waterfront campaign received most of its funding from companies such as Citgo, Irving and the American Petroleum Institute, it did receive a large number of important local endorsements, including from several sitting South Portland city councilors, several former South Portland mayors, former Gov. John Baldacci and the South Portland/Cape Elizabeth Community Chamber.

While the early portion of the campaign focused on the potential environmental impacts of transporting tar sands through Maine and pumping it onto ships, the dialogue shifted in September after the “No” campaign released an economic impact report that estimated that South Portland would lose 5,600 jobs and $252 million in accumulated earnings over the next decade if its petroleum industries shut down as a result of the WPO’s passage. Charles Lawton of Portland-based Policy Decisions Inc. was the report’s author.

Members of the Protect South Portland group lambasted the report, arguing that it was based on an incorrect assumption that the WPO would affect existing petroleum-based businesses in South Portland. However, the report significantly changed the tenor of the campaign and helped secure endorsements from groups like the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and Baldacci, who said the WPO “is far too broad as written” and “would negatively impact a wide range of businesses and industries, costing our state good paying jobs, much needed tax revenue and access to affordable energy.”

Carolyn Graney, a South Portland resident and volunteer with the Protect South Portland campaign, told the BDN Tuesday evening that though she was disappointed with the result, the issue was not settled.

“I’m still feeling the excitement and momentum we have in South Portland around this issue,” she said. “So I’m confident we’re not going to allow tar sands into our city no matter what.”

On Tuesday night, Wilson of Portland Pipe Line Corp. seemed to understand that the fight wasn’t over.

“We have a tremendous challenge ahead of us to provide the necessary facts and we’re thankful we have that opportunity,” he said. “We believe from here we go forward together in the great tradition and legacy of South Portland where we sit down together, collaborate and listen to each other’s concerns, dreams and visions, and we determine a future together that’s not divisive.

Whit Richardson

Whit Richardson is Business Editor at the Bangor Daily News. He blogs about Maine business, entrepreneurs and the economy.