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Protecting South Portland: Our Little Corner of Creation

By Mary-Jane Ferrier, RSCJ

The Society of the Sacred Heart expresses its mission as “making known the love of God revealed in the heart of Jesus Christ.” In recent years that mission is also expressed through the lens of our commitment to pursue “justice, peace and the integrity of creation.” If only we could put this notion into what we call a “portmanteau word,” one that would emphasize the unity of these three notions all in one word, for that would speak to the unity of purpose our commitment leads us to.

Since last March, I have been reading and pondering Elizabeth Johnson’s Ask the Beasts, a theologian’s dialogue with Darwin’s thought. It has been a deeply moving experience and an enrichment of my own lifelong love of “the beasts,” whose lives speak to me of trusting love. But more than that, her discussion leads me to her expansive vision of the Spirit of God dwelling at the heart of creation, “because creation is the self-giving gift of the Creator.” In the light of this, the degradation of the Creator’s gift of self confronts us with the true gravity of our collective actions. As Johnson wrote, “the ongoing destruction of life on Earth by human action, intended or not, has the character of deep moral failure.”

The story I am about to tell has its roots in this world of insights, in this “justice-peace-integrity-of-creation” mission the Society embraces. It is a nuts and bolts story about real people in real world situations. It is an example of what “contemplation in action” can look like. It is my hope that I can somehow tell it in such a way that you will be able to see, feel, experience the power of those roots, while still appreciating the nitty gritty grandeur of the human beings who have been participants with me in this story.

So let me introduce you to one or two of these people, and others as we go along.

Our “founding mother” is Rachel Mason Burger, an artist and member of the elders group that first raised our consciousness to the environmental issues confronting our community of South Portland, Maine. Let no one be deceived by her mild exterior. She is a bulldog when it comes to principle. She is the only member who is contemporaneous with me. It was in her living room that the original Concerned Citizens of South Portland (CCSP) met. At that first meeting, Karen Sanford, my neighbor and fellow dog walker and a leader in the Working Waterfront initiative of Portland in the 80’s was also present. We had come together because of a growing awareness of the threat that tar sands oil might make its way to our town via a reversed Portland Montreal Pipeline.

Let me explain.

The City of South Portland, Maine (pop 25,000), shares a harbor with Portland on Casco Bay. It is the home to the Portland Montreal Pipeline (PPL), a pipeline that carries imported crude from ships to refineries in Montreal. In the meantime, in landlocked Alberta, Canada, large deposits of tar sands (or oil sands) are buried deep underground. The crude oil in the deposits is mixed with sand, soil and water. Owners of the tar sands refineries seek a port on the Atlantic or the Pacific, or perhaps on the Gulf of Mexico, to bring these deposits to world markets. In recent years, the big oil companies mining the tar sands have been building pipelines to carry them across Canada. As these have approached eastern Canada, some have considered reversing the flow in the PPL to bring tar sands oil to South Portland for export to world markets.

The Alberta tar sands have been known for a long time, but, until recently, it was not economically viable to take them out of the ground. However, technology has changed, and rumblings of how that might affect us began to reach us here in South Portland. The Natural Resources Council of Maine sounded warnings and hosted presentations with graphic pictures and scientific data. Finally, in January 2013, a coalition of environmental groups rallied over a thousand people in bitterly cold weather to march through Portland proclaiming opposition to bringing tar sands to our port. Later that winter, the South Portland City Council hosted a workshop at which hundreds of people gathered to speak out against any possible reversing of the PPL to bring tar sands oil to our port. South Portland found itself in the unique position of being able to exert its home rule authority to prevent the existing pipeline from being reversed and so becoming a conduit for the crude from the Alberta tar sands

It was in the shadow of these events that Concerned Citizens of South Portland (CCSP), of which I was a member, began meeting to plot a course forward. An important member of this group was Natalie West, an attorney with expertise in municipal law, who crafted a proposed city ordinance, the Waterfront Protection Ordinance (WPO) that would effectively ban tar sands oil loading in South Portland. CCSP decided to focus on getting a citizen initiative on the ballot for fall of 2013 to make this ordinance law. Within eleven days of active canvassing, the group collected four thousand signatures, well over the 975 required. In August, the City Council voted to send this ordinance to the voters in November 2013. We were off and running!

Changing tasks

We had a task to do, but it became apparent to us that running a political campaign was a very different activity than what we had been doing up to then. We needed to tighten up what had been a somewhat loose group into a well-oiled, effective team. At this juncture, one of our environmental collaborators, Environment Maine, was able to provide us with a talented, well experienced organizer and campaign manager, Taryn Hallweaver, a graduate of Vassar College, and a native Mainer. On the advice of a political consultant, we also changed our name to Protect South Portland (PSP), to capture the more active intent of the group. And we became a Political Action Committee.

By that time, our work to put the initiative on the ballot had attracted several other dedicated workers. Among them was Marla Pastrana, a layout expert at our local newspaper. Marla always brings serenity to the group, probably from her lifelong embrace of Buddhism, learned from her Japanese mother. Like Rachel, she has an inner bulldog. At the same time, Andy Jones joined us. He had just graduated with an MBA, and while he looked for a job he volunteered enormous amounts of time to the campaign. Andy grew up in South Portland and knows and is known by most of the players. The Natural Resources Council of Maine lent us Emmie Theberge, for many, many hours. Emmie is a graduate of Colby College not that many years ago, a native Mainer and one of NRCM’s rising stars. You want it done, she does it. At this time, Crystal Goodrich also joined. Crystal is well known in South Portland civic groups, founder of the dog owners group, for one, an occupational therapist by day. She became the canvass manager par excellence. Last but by no means least, Cathy Chapman became one of our most indefatigable weekend door knockers. A native Mainer, Cathy is a survivor of Maine’s back to the land community, a widow, retired from Maine’s human services department. Later she exhibited a talent for getting the ear of our mayor

That fall, PSP gathered volunteers from the city, from all the surrounding cities and towns, islands in Casco Bay, from colleges, schools, churches, elder groups and individuals who came forward to carry out the myriad little tasks that go into a campaign. Fellow environmental group members joined us in the effort, foremost among whom was Sarah Lachance who traveled to us from Kennebunkport and served as an active link with the much larger 350 Maine organization. They knocked on doors to talk with voters, they made countless phone calls, they prepared materials the walkers needed for their task, they got coffee and food for the troops, they greeted, they trained, they entered data. In the end our volunteer list numbered over four thousand. On the last weekend before the vote, PSP fielded over a thousand door knockings.

A little sampling:

  • Max, the twelve-year-old boy who chose the PSP effort for his Bar Mitzvah project;
  • Doug, the retired social worker from western Maine who travelled to South Portland every weekend to canvass;
  • Carolyn, who worked in the background entering data collected by the canvassers to help direct each next step in the campaign;
  • the elders who came every Friday to put together the packets for the canvassers that weekend;
  • the elderly woman in a wheelchair who parked along the main street in bitter weather, waving a sign to get out the vote.

This list could go on and on. What was clear during these months was that we were working on an issue that spoke to people of all ages. It also became clear to me that a huge task of education was taking place. The citizens of South Portland were learning a lot about the dangers of tar sands oil, but they were also tapping in to the threat this oil poses for the beautiful environment in which we live.

What about our opposition? It did not take long to realize that we were taking on Big Oil, not just a little regional pipeline. A new entity emerged, called Energy Citizens, easily traced back to the American Petroleum Institute, the lobbying arm in D.C. of the oil industry. They spent about three quarters of a million dollars to convince the citizens of South Portland that the Waterfront Protection Ordinance would shut down the waterfront and make jobs disappear. In a city as small as South Portland that translated to approximately $132 per vote. Eventually, in November 2013, our grassroots campaign was defeated. When all the votes were counted, the WPO lost by 193 votes out of over 8,000 cast.

It was a big disappointment for sure. But, remember all that education that had been taking place? One group that tuned into that was our City Council who heard over and over again from constituents that they felt they had to vote against the WPO to protect jobs but they really did not want to see tar sands oil in South Portland. The day after the election, the City Council convened an emergency meeting at which they proposed a six-month moratorium on all waterfront development and the appointment of a committee to study the issue of bringing tar sands oil to South Portland. Within days, the city received a three page letter from the American Petroleum Institute threatening to sue the city.

Big mistake. The city councilors visibly bristled at this threat, and when the time came to vote on the proposed moratorium, they passed it and gave the appointed committee a clear mandate to find a legal and defensible way to ban tar sands oil from the city.

Dogged determination

Once again Protect South Portland needed to change gears. Our task now morphed from full campaign mode into watch-dogging and lobbying. Now the ball was in the Council’s and the DOC’s court. Again, new faces joined us for this phase of our work. Eben Rose followed Sarah from 350 Maine. Ebenis a geo-biologist working on a dissertation at Yale. He has been our indefatigable “research guy.”

PSP formed a policy committee whose members attended every meeting of the DOC. Others of us kept in contact with our councilors. It was my job to rally support from neighboring cities and towns and from professional organizations, like the Maine State Nurses’ Association, the American Lung Association and so on. It also fell to me to be the spokesperson for PSP whenever someone was needed to comment on ongoing events or new developments. During this phase two more people emerged in our leadership group. Meg Braley, a retired school nurse in the South Portland schools jumped into electronic publishing with gusto, bringing out our newsletter with the help of her tech savvy husband, Jim. With Cathy Chapman, she mobilized supporters with amazing success. Last but not least, PJ Cragin is a gifted and imaginative speaker at Council meetings who charms and amuses while making profound points. Like Eben, she helps back us up with research.

Everyone attended innumerable Council meetings and workshops, speaking out in support of the work of the DOC, countering allegations made in full page “Energy Citizen” ads that South Portland had nothing to fear from tar sands oil. We had all agreed that our focus must stay firmly on the goal of getting a good ordinance and on winning over the councilors who might be least likely to support it. We knew that by doing this we would be making a huge contribution to the work of environmental groups all over the United States and Canada who looked to us to use our unique position to say “no” to the plans of the petroleum industry. But we also knew that we could not let our attention be diverted from the details of our task at hand by this larger vision. Discipline was the name of the game and it was amazing how this group managed to embrace it for those long months.

The Draft Ordinance Committee, made up of three extraordinarily gifted men who covered the bases from marine legislation experience to environmental law, toiled for a little over six months. The process was entirely open, inviting input and broadcast on Community Television. A local columnist described it as a stellar example of democracy in action. Ultimately, they came up with an elegantly simple ordinance that bans the loading of crude oil onto tankers in South Portland’s harbor, an activity that has never been part of the large petroleum presence here. No jobs would be affected, no businesses shut down. The rationale was based on the right of a city to regulate the quality of its air, in a word, on Maine’s home rule statute. Hence the ordinance’s name: the Clear Skies Ordinance.

Again, the initiative passed to the City Council who received the proposed ordinance in mid-June, 2014, at a workshop attended by hundreds of supporters who came to speak for it in spite of thunder, lightning and driving rain. PSP came prepared with hundreds of sky blue t-shirts with Rachel’s design of a white bird and fluffy clouds on the chest. The hall was a sea of blue. There were one or two opponents who spoke out, but they were few and far between. At that workshop the Council agreed to put it on the agenda for their next meeting in early July, to be the first of the two votes required for passage into law.

Perhaps PSP was lulled by this favorable reception. Perhaps the City Council was, too, for they scheduled the Council meeting back at City Hall in its small Council chambers, but we were in for a rude awakening when the Council meeting rolled around on July 7. When I arrived at City Hall that day there were long lines of men and women blocking the entries. They were all wearing red t-shirts emblazoned with “American Energy” in block capitals under an American Flag. When the doors opened, they surged forward into the chamber to fill all the seats. One or two of the blue shirts managed to get a seat, but the bulk of us were left milling around. The mayor asked that people there who were not citizens wishing to speak give up their seats and go to another space where they could watch on closed circuit TV. No one budged. Meanwhile several of our number began engaging the men in red shirts in conversation. It turned out, many of them did not know why they were there. They had been told to come and just sit and stay. Which they did. The upshot was that the Council postponed the Clear Skies item to the coming Wednesday, when they would have an emergency meeting in a larger space. As the red shirts left, a number of them were observed getting into several black SUVs with Massachusetts plates, confirming our suspicions that they had been hired to obstruct. It turned out, however, that this action backfired, stiffening the resolve of the Councilors who might have wavered. They did not take kindly to having their business obstructed like that. One of those councilors told one of us that she was impressed with the peaceful way in which we had handled the situation.

Two days later, hundreds of Clear Skies supporters turned out, many to speak in favor of the ordinance. There were still red-shirted men there, but most were faces we knew, from other meetings or from around town. The opposition had abandoned their obstructive tactics. It looked as if they had expected many, many more to turn out, because they had draped red t-shirts over half of the seats in the auditorium. Later in the evening, as the speakers continued to step up, I nabbed one of those shirts as a trophy.

When it came time, the Council voted 6-1 to send the ordinance to the Planning Board for their input. Blue shirts rose as one to cheer while the press and TV reporters headed to file their stories. From that day on my life became one interview after another to get our story out. This was news! We were halfway to the finish line and everyone interested in environmental issues wanted to hear about it.

A week later, the Planning Board registered their approval 6-1 and sent it back to the Council for their final and decisive vote. A year and a half of planning, strategizing, mobilizing, persuading and doggedly attending meetings was about to come down to an end. On July 21, we packed the auditorium again. Long lines of people who wanted to speak formed. The meeting seemed to go on forever as, one after another, people went to the podium, some in wheelchairs, or with walkers, some with babes in arms, boys and girls who, to get to the mike, needed a chair to stand on. It was as if they wanted to bear testimony to something sacred happening. This city was about to speak up for the earth.

When the 6-1 vote in favor was announced the auditorium erupted in cheers, hoots, laughter, even some dancing and a lot of hugging. I found myself in tears.

Later, when we had retired to our favorite watering hole, I was standing at the bar waiting to get the bar maid’s attention, when a man came up and sat on a stool next to me. He introduced himself and then said to me: “I hear you are a nun,” to which I replied, “Yes, I belong to the Society of the Sacred Heart.” At this he threw back his head and laughed, “You’re kidding! I went to your elementary school in California, in Menlo Park.” There ensued a long conversation about all sorts of connections there and in New York. It turned out that this man had been one of the principal donors to our campaign, through one of the environmental organizations. In some mysterious way he had been giving back to make it possible for me and my colleagues to participate in that twenty-first century version of the Society’s mission. Together, and with his backing, we had done our part to protect the integrity of our little corner of creation.

(This article was written for the winter issue of Heart magazine. For more on the ministries of the Religous of the Sacred Heart, you can find this issue here on this site.)