June 20, 2018
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Job source or death tank?

By David Laing, Special to the BDN

The atmosphere is electric.

Last week, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers made its final decision to grant a permit for the 22.7 million gallon liquefied propane storage tank proposed by ConocoPhillips Corp. for construction at Mack Point in Searsport.

Just last month, a referendum to delay approval of the project pending further findings of fact was defeated by Searsport residents, but resistance remains strong.

The pro-tankers characterize the anti-tankers as well-to-do out-of-staters who object to the visual effect of the huge tank, but the issue is a lot more complicated than that, involving questions of safety and economic loss.

Last Saturday, I attended a meeting of the anti-tank ThanksButNoTank.org group in Searsport, and was interested to note that there were some native Mainers in the group.

This group is focused on a local Searsport effort to stop the tank project, and they are determined to keep the dialog civil and rational — stressing such issues as safety, traffic congestion, road surface deterioration, suppression of tourism, loss of business revenue, loss of property values and, yes, visual impact. The pro-tankers are stressing jobs and tax revenues for the town.

Another more vocal, less well-organized, and less local group of anti-tankers — many of whose members are from surrounding towns — is less concerned with civil discourse and more with hard-hitting exposes of the proposed tank’s many potential negative externalities, comprising everything in the foregoing list, but with more alarm and urgency than is employed by the Thanks But No Tank group.

Referring to the ConocoPhillips project as the “Death Tank,” they stress the wholesale devastation that would result from a boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion of the tank and the multiplicity of things — terrorists, earthquakes, lightning strikes, power outages (the propane must be kept refrigerated at minus 44 degrees F), human error, etc. — that could cause such an explosion.

They stress that the energy content of the full tank exceeds half a megaton, equivalent to at least 33 Hiroshima-sized atom bombs, and claim that destruction by the burn front could reach past Bucksport, Camden and Blue Hill, with wildfires continuing as far as Bangor, Ellsworth and Rockland. The energy content figure, at least, has been confirmed by the head of the chemistry department at the University of Maine in Orono.

This grass-roots group also brings into focus the one significant concern that the Thanks But No Tank group has not yet addressed: the potential effects on surrounding municipalities that could ensue from Searsport’s unilateral decision to allow ConocoPhillips to locate the tank in their jurisdiction.

If the laundry list of potential negative effects were limited to Searsport, that would not be an issue, but clearly, the list is not so limited. Traffic congestion and road deterioration would affect all towns along the Route 1 corridor, and Route 1 itself would be subject to road surface deterioration along its whole length. Who pays?

Likewise, tourist-dependent businesses all along Route 1 would be affected by frequent tanker-truck traffic. Who compensates them?

Properties in neighboring towns with the tank in their viewscape would lose value. Who compensates for the loss?

ConocoPhillips has not been forthcoming with answers to these questions, but a barrage of emails to companyquestions@conocophillips.com might help.

There has been talk of class action lawsuits against both ConocoPhillips and the town of Searsport to compensate for losses attributable to the construction and operation of the tank.

Pro-tankers, if they worry about such negative consequences, suppress their worries in the greater interest of solidarity with what they see as their native Mainer peer group, which traditionally views job-creating industry and commercial development as desirable and beyond reproach.

ConocoPhillips has said there will be many short-term construction jobs and perhaps 14 permanent blue-collar jobs. Who gets them? Not specified.

Who pays for the unemployment benefits for the short-term workers when the work is done? Three guesses, and the first two don’t count.

To this writer, it seems clear that there is a whole lot more in play for the entire Midcoast from this project than the vague promise of a handful of jobs and tax revenue for Searsport. And most of the people who stand to lose from it haven’t even been allowed to weigh in on it. Isn’t our democracy supposed to protect us against this sort of thing?

David Laing is a resident of Stockton Springs.

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