The Portland Pipe Line and its Sutton pumping station runs through the heart of the Northeast Kingdom. The 236-mile pipeline, which has been around in one form or another since World War II, is used to pump oil from Portland, Maine, to Montreal.
Neighbors of the pipeline, like Ron Holland of Irasburg, are among those concerned the company that owns it has plans to reverse the flow as part of a larger effort to find export markets for what he calls dirty Canadian tar sands oil.
"On my property the pipe goes through the Black River for example and it's an aging pipeline; it's a new substance going through it that certainly increases the risk," Holland said.
Holland joined with a coalition of environmental groups Tuesday that is asking the Vermont Environmental Commission to get involved.
"We filed this request to ensure that Vermont and Vermonters are heard before any tar sands oil is shipped through this state," said Douglas Ruley of the Vermont Law School.
"Tar sands poses a lot of threats to New England. In July of 2010, a tar sands pipeline burst in Kalamazoo, Mich., spilling tar sands into Tallmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River," said Jim Murphy of the National Wildlife Federation. "Because tar sands sinks instead of floats like conventional crude, EPA has estimated that even though a billion dollars has been spent-- or just short of a billion has been spent on cleanup, it's likely that river will never be fully restored."
Both the Portland Pipeline Corporation and Enbridge, the Canadian Corporation working to bring tar sands oil to Montreal, have as recently as last week denied there are any plans under way to use the Northeastern section of the pipeline.
Oil industry officials not directly involved in the issue say even if the pipeline was to carry tar sands, it doesn't justify opponents concerns.
"We're looking forward to bringing in some issue experts that know about how tar sands are extracted and how they're transported, so that we can draw a finer light on the issue and answer some of the questions that have been raised by the activists," said Joe Choquette of the Vermont Petroleum Association.
But opponents are convinced the pipeline companies are not revealing their full hand.
"There's the denial but there is so much evidence that this makes sense for them economically and they're putting a lot of pieces in place. It's really hard to believe them," Murphy said.
In addition to today's legal action, Vermont lawmakers have taken up two bills aimed at regulating any changes that would be made to the pipeline going through the kingdom.
One of the biggest beefs pipeline opponents have is the very use of tar sands oil itself and the threat it poses to global climate change. Author and climate change activist Bill McKibben is set to address a joint session of the Legislature Wednesday on that very issue.
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