Cartwrites: Islanders oppose giant gas tank

Posted Wednesday, July 25, 2012 in Sustainable Maine

Cartwrites: Islanders oppose giant gas tank

by Steve Cartwright

Eight island and mainland communities have so far voted to send letters to the Town of Searsport, affirming their concern over the safety and other issues around a proposed 14-story propane gas storage tank proposed for Mack Point on Penobscot Bay.

Islesboro has taken the lead in raising the issue around the bay. Typical of concerns by towns is the letter from Islesboro selectmen, which says in part, “"No single municipality in Waldo County or the region has the infrastructure in fire safety, emergency response, police or hospital facilities to cope with a catastrophic incident at the proposed DCP Midstream facility."

The unprecedented plan to build a 22.6 million gallon tank for imported liquefied propane gas (LPG) has generated growing opposition in Penobscot Bay, as area residents learn of the potential hazards, road and sea traffic, and aesthetic impact of a tank that would be visible for miles around, altering the view from land and sea.

Stephen Miller, executive director of Islesboro Islands Trust, wrote in a letter to Searsport planners: “It’s logical for one to expect that, in general, shore-based fire departments, emergency response units, and emergency management organizations located in close proximity to an LPG facility would have the appropriate training and equipment necessary to launch an initial response capability to an LPG fire and/or related medical emergency. Unfortunately, in keeping with the rural nature of the area that capability does not currently exist in the Penobscot Bay region.”

Miller in his July letter urged Searsport conduct a complete assessment of safety issues, both to meet federal licensing requirements, and to comply with its own town ordinance.

Lawyer Kim Tucker, an Islesboro resident and tank opponent, said DCP Midstream has been quietly pushing its project through the permit process but now faces increasing opposition from Searsport’s neighbors. She said one of the biggest unanswered questions is why build the tank. There is no demonstrated need for more foreign-produced propane gas, she said.

She said two-dozen LPG tanker trips to Searsport will “shut down the bay” during deliveries because of security regulations, and more than 60 tanker trucks traveling Route One daily from Searsport will transform traffic patterns. Those trucks could scare off tourists who are mainstay of the midcoast economy, she said.

Tucker said responsibility for the safety and security of the tank will fall not just on Searsport, but also on the entire region through mutual aid agreements. But the tank will offer no economic benefit to surrounding communities, she said.

Tucker said there is less regulation and oversight for an LPG terminal than for liquefied natural gas (LNG). An LNG terminal proposed for Searsport was rejected years ago, and LNG terminals have been turned down elsewhere along the Maine coast.

Town select boards on the islands of North Haven and Islesboro voted unanimously to send letters to Searsport, as have the mainland communities of Rockport, Lincolnville, Stockton Springs and Belfast. Camden voted 3-2 in favor of sending a letter, while Rockland’s city council rejected the idea after first voicing support for a letter.

Duke Energy, combined with oil giant Conoco Phillips, is behind the proposed 138-foot high refrigerated tank, and the matter has been pending before the Searsport planning board for months. DCP Midstream, the applicant, was able to keep the entire project quiet for a while, but eventually the scope of the proposal leaked out and a storm of protest followed. The Denver-based DCP corporation has attempted to silence opposition at Searsport planning board meetings, and earlier this year he company opened a local office and campaigned against a proposed moratorium on development in Searsport. The moratorium was defeated.

Opponents of the tank claim it will create only six to 12 jobs, while putting the region at risk of fire and explosion, and adding dozens of hazardous propane gas trucks to Route 1 traffic. Some critics say it will alter Searsport’s historic character and make the area less attractive to tourists who come to see an unspoiled coast and Searsport’s marine museum.

A midcoast group, Thanks But No Tank, has organized rallies and letter-writing campaigns, and is continuing to fight the Searsport project, which reportedly lacks Maine Fuel Board approval. That fact means DCP’s application to the Searsport Planning board remains incomplete, Tucker said.

Critics also say the required tanker “exclusion zone” surrounding deliveries by sea will disrupt boating and fishing in the bay while adding the danger of a potential accident. DCP argues, through its lawyers, that since Searsport has voted to allow the big tank by modifying a town ordinance, nothing should stand in the way of constructing the project. Lawyer Kelly Boden wrote to the planning board to say that considering region-wide effects of the tank is “inappropriate,” and also that the planning board should shut off public comment.

Bruce Probert, planning board chairman, has in response disallowed public comment on pending applications (DCP’s tank) during regular meetings.

People on both sides of the tank debate said privately that the project is somewhat like a train that has already left the station, and it would be difficult to halt it. In any case, both sides agree the issue is headed for litigation.

Thomas O’Connor, head of DCP, said on the company website that the firm, one of the world’s largest selling propane, is “dedicated to safety, environmental stewardship and reliable operations.”

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