Bay Watch

Bay Watch

Is it too late for the Seacoast's Crown Jewel?
Thursday, June 19, 2014
Great Bay on a foggy morningPhoto credit: Larry Landolfi

The man in the black Cadillac showed up late in the summer of 1973. Plenty of people had seen him, driving back and forth along Bay Road, the ribbon of pavement that winds around the edge of New Hampshire's Great Bay between Durham and Newmarket. He was knocking on doors as he went, talking to property owners one by one. He wanted to buy land, he told them. For a bird sanctuary. For a family estate. For a golf course. People were mystified. Rumor had it there was money to be made. Lots of it.

When the mysterious stranger in a black trench coat appeared on the doorstep of Nancy Sandberg's farmhouse, she bit her tongue and listened. No, she told him, she wasn't interested in selling. As soon as he was out of the driveway, Sandberg called her neighbors. Then she called a meeting. "We were all suspicious," she says. "We decided we needed to try to figure things out. So we got organized, then and there." The group appointed Sandberg as their chair and, just like that, the 27-year-old mother became a citizen activist.

The midnight phone call came in September, shortly after the visit from the trench coat-wearing stranger. Phyllis Bennett, one of Sandberg's neighbors, was still at work at the fledgling newspaper she'd launched just weeks earlier, and the voice on the line was urgent. He had a tip. Bennett assigned a reporter to investigate, and a few days later Publick Occurrences broke the story with a front-page headline: "Dark Shadow Over Durham." Another story followed shortly: "Pipeline Coming to Durham?" The truth, it turns out, was more incredible than all the rumors: Aristotle Onassis was planning to build the world's largest oil refinery on the shores of Great Bay.

"When I saw those headlines, I hooted with laughter," recalls Dudley Webster Dudley '59, who was a freshman legislator in the New Hampshire House at the time. A 400,000-barrel-a-day refinery on Great Bay? It sounded like fiction. As the stories continued, more details emerged: Supertankers would pull up to a terminal at the Isles of Shoals, the crude oil would be piped underwater to Rye, then over land to Durham, where it would be refined in giant tanks covering 3,500 acres of land on Durham Point and cooled with fresh water piped in from Lake Winnipesaukee. "It sounds far-fetched now," says Dudley, "but Onassis had a lot of power behind him, including Governor Meldrim Thomson and William Loeb, publisher of the Manchester Union Leader. It was a tough group to go up against."

Great Bay in Durham at sunset    Photo credit: Lisa Nugent

So began a David-and-Goliath battle for the future of New Hampshire's Great Bay. One of the country's most important inland estuary ecosystems, the bay includes more than 7,000 acres of open water and wetlands and is home to more than 23 threatened or endangered species. Fed by fresh water from seven rivers, the bay's mudflats, saltmarshes, and eelgrass meadows are awash in a nutrient-rich brackish mix that provides vital habitat and feeding ground for wildlife, as well as critical storm water control and a beautiful setting for boating and fishing.

And yet the bay, which lies 15 miles inland from the ocean was—and still is—a mystery for many residents and visitors, who do little more than admire its shimmering beauty as they drive across the bridges that span its northern waters where it meets the Piscataqua River. "We realized that we'd better fight for this jewel, or we might lose it forever," says Sharon Meeker '75G, who had just moved to Durham in 1973 and wasn't about to watch Onassis swoop in and destroy the very thing that had drawn her to the New Hampshire Seacoast in the first place.

In most of the state, though, public opinion leaned in favor of the refinery project. The energy crisis that gripped the country was in full swing, with lines of cars backed up for miles at the gas pumps. Capitalizing on the spreading panic, Onassis, Thomson, and Loeb relentlessly promoted the refinery's benefits: Jobs for all! No more property taxes! Cheaper gas! "They struck while the iron was hot," says Bennett. "It was hard economic times, and they had some convincing arguments."

But the activists had their own ammunition—and Sandberg's "brigade of housewives" to lead the charge. "Save Our Shores," or SOS, became their battle cry—and the name of their group, which grew to several thousand members. They created handouts, wrote newsletters, and circulated a giant petition. "We taped it end-to-end, and it ran the length of Main Street," recalls Meeker, who also helped coordinate and distribute papers by 14 UNH professors addressing a slew of economic and environmental issues surrounding the refinery. Publick Occurrences published every word of their findings, devoting entire editions to the battle and providing activists with the facts they needed to fight back.

Jobs for all? Refineries require highly specialized labor, which meant most of the jobs would go to out-of-state experts, not to locals. Tax relief? Because an oil tank is considered "machinery," which is not taxable in New Hampshire, most of the 3,500-acre refinery would remain tax-free. As for cheaper gas, research confirmed that prices near refineries in New Jersey and Texas were actually slightly higher than gas prices in New England. And lines at the pumps were longer.

Great Bay in Durham, NH
Photo credit: Larry Landolfi

On March 3, 1974, the Olympic Oil Refinery team made a public presentation at the invitation of Durham's selectmen. NBC's "Today Show" was in town for the event, and a standing-room-only crowd was gathered at the UNH Field House. Students in flannel shirts and hiking boots faced off with Texas oil executives in suits. Questions flew. Claims were made. One of the oilmen, recalls Dudley, responded to concerns about the refinery with this reassurance: "It'll be clean as a clinic, and at night, with all the lights on, it'll be lit up pretty as a Christmas tree." The crowd roared.

Three days later, at the Durham town meeting, zoning changes that would have permitted the refinery project to go forward were soundly defeated. But it was the vote that happened, coincidentally, the very next day, in a special session of the Legislature, that quietly made history. Dudley's so-called "Home Rule Bill," House Bill 15, reaffirmed the right of individual towns to make their own decisions on large projects—such as an oil refinery. "The timing was incredibly serendipitous," she says. "The legislators knew that if it was their town, and someone wanted to come in and do something big, they'd want the right to say no, too."

In the end, "the most important thing that happened in Seacoast New Hampshire was what did not happen," notes local historian J. Dennis Robinson '73, recalling the 1974 defeat of the oil refinery on Thanks to a miracle of timing and events--a determined young legislator who wasn't afraid to take on the governor, motivated citizens who threw everything into the fight, an upstart paper that helped to change history—nothing happened. But the Onassis chapter, as it turns out, was just the beginning of a much longer, more complicated, story—one whose ending has yet to be written.

Read the other four parts of this five part story:

Good News, Bad News

The Battle Continues

Pollution Solutions

Hope on the Halfshell


Originally published by: 

UNH Magazine

Written by Suki Casanave '86G