Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Fossil fuels bike tour

Late last fall, builders wrapped the construction of the new Veterans' Memorial Bridge, which spans the Fore River in the western reaches of Portland harbor. The project included a beautiful new bike path between Portland and South Portland, and this evening I went out to ride it for the first time this spring.

The old bridge (recently dismantled) used to run through the center of the photo above, immediately parallel to the railroad bridge at left. Its former course is now an empty lot with some remnant orange construction fencing. The coastline here is full of concrete riprap and odd tidepools formed from 20th-century construction debris.

Nearby on the Portland side of the bridge is Merrill's marine terminal, which transfers miscellaneous cargoes between ships and the railroad.  There's usually a large pile of coal here, but not much of it remained this afternoon. Maine has no coal-burning power plants, but at least one of its large paper mills still burns coal to fire its boilers.

I dig the interpretive signage.

Calcium carbonate, according to Wikipedia,  is mainly used in construction "as an ingredient of cement or as the starting material for the preparation of builder's lime by burning in a kiln." But these tank cars are more likely headed to one of Maine's paper mills, which are increasingly specializing in value-added coated paper products. Ground calcium carbonate can be used as a filler to substitute for wood fiber, and can also replace kaolin in glossy paper production.

A few years ago, some local philanthropists decided that they needed to beautify the oil tanks with art, and hired a Venezuelan-born artist to design the patterns. I admit I kind of like it, even though I blanch at how much money they spent on it. 

And I'm put off by the a strange impulse to cover the oil tanks in expensive sanctioned art. I'd like to hope that it brings more attention to the oil tanks and makes passing motorists think about their dependence on the global petrochemical industry. But I think most of the wealthy donors are hoping that the paint job will obscure the dirty truth.

On a bike, though, you don't just see the tanks — you smell them, too. A volatile organic bouquet of benzene and sulphates.

A bundle of pipes lead from these tanks to a wharf on the waterfront, where a fuel barge was docked this evening. Similar barges often can be seen refueling tanker ships in the harbor with bunker fuels — the cheapest and filthiest of oil products, so dirty that they generally can only be burned at sea, outside of state and national jurisdictions. A string of oil-containment booms snake out from the wharf's pilings.

For all the fossil fuels on display here, the ability to see them on foot, or on a bike, is a positive development. The new bridge replaces one that had been built in the mid-1950s and designed as a freeway spur. It had one narrow, crumbling sidewalk that dead-ended at a freeway interchange.

Thanks to extensive local activism, the new bridge includes a well-lit bike path, and a lower speed limit and narrower lanes. The freeway interchange on the South Portland side has been  narrowed to a bottleneck where it meets the bridge, in order to force car traffic to yield to bikes and pedestrians.

I like to think how we forced motorists to sacrifice a second or two on their drives across the harbor in order to make the bridge a friendlier place for those of us who prefer not to burn oil. Though I suppose this also means that a few motorists will live longer by not dying in car accidents, only to burn more oil in their old age.

No comments: