Opponents of 138-foot-tall propane tank in Searsport to hold meetings

Posted Nov. 01, 2011, at 8:19 p.m.
Last modified Nov. 01, 2011, at 10:09 p.m.

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SEARSPORT, Maine — The Maine Department of Environmental Protection gave its approval this fall for the construction of a $40 million liquid propane terminal to be located in the Mack Point industrial zone.

But that approval has not changed the minds of area environmentalists, business owners and others who say they are deeply concerned about the potential problems that might grow alongside the 138-foot-tall propane tank. Two information sessions titled “Thanks But No Tank” will be held this week in Belfast and Searsport by those opposed to the project.

“Whether or not you’re for it or against it, it makes sense to ask questions,” Astrig Tanguay, co-owner of Searsport Shores Camping Resort, said Tuesday afternoon. “We should find out what’s in it for us. I don’t see anything in it that’s for the people in our region.”

The terminal would be constructed by Denver-based DCP Midstream Partners, a private company that is jointly owned by Spectra Energy and ConocoPhillips. Company representatives first came to Searsport last December to hold informational sessions about the project, which still needs approval from state and federal agencies.

Tanguay said that last week she invited officials from DCP Midstream to attend the “Thanks But No Tank” information sessions.

However, Roz Elliott, a spokeswoman for the company, said Tuesday night that because of the short notice no one from the company will be able to attend.

“We of course are always pleased to respond to questions,” she wrote in an email.

According to the permit issued by DEP, a maximum of six propane tankers a year would offload the fuel at the existing cargo pier. The liquid propane would be pumped through a new, mile-long mostly above-ground pipeline to the bulk storage tank at the DCP Terminal. The company would offload the propane to trucks and rail cars at the terminal for distribution throughout Maine and potentially to other locations in northern New England.

Elliott said Tuesday that it is too early to discuss a timeline for project construction since the company still is working through the application process.

The Searsport Planning Board, which would give final approval to the terminal’s construction, has not yet received an application, according to Chairman Bruce Probert. He said he has been busy reading the 21-page permit from the DEP, which he received Monday night.

He said that he will look skeptically at the application, if and when it is received, and also wondered why such staunch opposition did not mobilize for other major industrial projects in Searsport, including the Irving Energy tanks that were built at Mack Point.

“We want to give these people a fair shot,” he said of DCP Midstream. “In Maine, we don’t like a lot of restrictions. We like private property rights … it comes down to a thing about home rule, too. It depends on the project. People in Searsport shouldn’t be telling people in Belfast how to build their boathouse. This isn’t a wide-open thing for the state. This is a Searsport thing.”

He said that if the company meets the town’s 17 performance standards in terms of site planning, the project must be approved.

But Tanguay, who will be moderating the question-and-answer segment of the public meetings, said that building a tank nearly three times taller than the gasoline storage tanks already in town could have wide-ranging negative effects on the town and the region.

She is concerned about the increase in heavy-truck traffic on Route 1, the potential explosive dangers of having nearly 23 million gallons of propane in one place, and the negative effect it will have on Penobscot Bay views.

One permit received by DCP Midstream has given them permission to bring in to the facility as many as 144 trucks a day.

“What do we get out of it except danger?” Tanguay asked.

But Elliott vehemently disagreed.

“I can’t tell you how seriously we take safety,” she said Tuesday in a phone interview from Denver. “Safety is our top value. Our employees are so highly trained to the highest of standards.”

The terminal project would feature an emergency shutdown system and backup power generators. In case of a power outage or mechanical problem, the terminal could “flare” or release the gas to the air so it could dissipate, she said, although this is less necessary in the wintertime when temperatures are colder and refrigeration not as affected. The company has permission to flare the terminal for a maximum of 500 hours a year.

Also, company officials would team up with local emergency responders to help train and support them, she said.

“I’m just very proud of what we do in that area [safety],” she said. “If you think about this potential propane import terminal in Searsport, it’s not just an operation to us. It’s the home of our future employees. We would live and work there.”

She also tried to soothe concerns about the increased numbers of trucks on the roads by saying that 144 per day is the maximum allowable and it would be much more typical to see 50 trucks a day, with more in the winter.

Tanguay and other tank opponents believe that this kind of talk is just whitewashing a project that is inherently problematic for Searsport and the midcoast region. She said that while tourism is an important part of the midcoast economy, the area also is a destination for retirees and others.

“My chief concern is it’s going to throw the entire balance out of whack,” she said of the proposed terminal. “They’re going to change our identity up here.”

The “Thanks But No Tank” public meetings are scheduled for 6-8 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 2, at the Searsport Town Hall and 6-8 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 3, at the Belfast Free Library. There will be a presentation followed by questions and discussion.

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