SEARSPORT, Maine — A series of public hearings on the controversial propane terminal and 138-foot-tall storage tank project that has spanned 11 nights since November ended contentiously this week, as some people clamored unsuccessfully for the chance to be heard by the Searsport planning board.
“People were understandably very upset,” Steve Hinchman, the attorney for opposition group Thanks But No Tank, said Thursday of the Monday night closing hearing. “They shut down the hearing arbitrarily at 9:30 p.m. and turned off the microphone. It’s no surprise to me that people stood up and started talking, without microphones, loud enough for the board to hear. There was a lot of shouting, a lot of anger, a lot of catcalls.”
And there’s likely to be more anger as the process grinds on, he predicted.
At the heart of the controversy is DCP Midstream’s proposal to build a $40-million, 23-million-gallon liquid propane gas terminal and storage tank at the Mack Point industrial port facility. The project has received permits from agencies including the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It awaits only a decision from the all-volunteer Searsport planning board, whose members have heard hours and hours of testimony and been reading thousands of pages of written comment as they get ready to begin deliberations and, finally, hold their vote.
“Everything will be considered in our decision,” planning board member Mark Bradstreet said Thursday. “Our decision will be based on the 18 performance standards laid out in the town ordinance.”
Those standards touch on air quality, soil erosion, water pollution, exterior lighting, and preserving and enhancing the landscape, among other points. Bradstreet said that he expects the board members to have a full week of deliberations beginning on the evening of Wednesday, March 27. He did not believe that the meetings, which will be open to the public, will be held on continuous nights. The upcoming meetings will not include any more chances for the public to speak, he said, though the board will continue to accept letters for consideration through Monday, March 4.
Planning board officials expect to make a decision on the application by mid-April.
“We felt we gave the public plenty of time. There’s never been an issue that I know of that had 11 nights of public hearings in the history of the town,” Bradstreet said. “There had to come a point where we cut it off, to start deliberations and render a decision.”
One voice that was added to the Monday night public hearing was that of former Maine Gov. John Baldacci. Officials from DCP have said that they became aware that Maine needed another source for propane when Baldacci made an emergency call to the company in 2007 because the state’s propane supply was threatened by a Canadian rail strike, the delayed arrival of a tanker vessel and a cold snap.
Baldacci wrote a letter to the planning board which said that he reached out to many energy companies during that period in order to get the state through the propane shortage.
“I appreciated the assistance [DCP] rendered during that temporary shortage. They were very helpful,” Baldacci wrote. “Since that time, no one from that company has ever talked to me about the LPG import terminal and storage tank proposals.”
He said in the letter that he has questions about the proposal to build such a project.
“Frankly, I shy away from propane. It is an expensive fuel for Mainers,” Baldacci wrote, adding that he believes the state will move toward natural gas. “I hope all those charged with the burden of evaluating this proposed project will always keep the safety and well-being of the public in mind above all other considerations.”
Roz Elliott of DCP Midstream has stressed that her company is committed to safety.
“I can’t tell you how seriously we take safety,” she told the BDN in a prior interview. “Safety is our top value.”
Elliott also has said that DCP’s investment in Searsport would create benefits including jobs, community involvement and property taxes paid by DCP to the town.
“We’re appreciative of all the discipline and commitment of the planning board,” she said Thursday. “We’re pleased to be at the point of deliberation.”
Hinchman said that if the planning board members ultimately vote to accept DCP’s application, Thanks But No Tank will continue to fight the propane project. He filed a brief this week in a lawsuit challenging the permit issued by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, which will be decided by the Maine Law Court in Portland.
“My clients have no choice but to fight this to the bitter end,” he said. “You have to understand, this is a zero-sum game, particularly for the people who live next door.”
He said that declining property values are a big worry for project opponents.
“We’re already seeing a tremendous hit in property values in Searsport,” Hinchman said. “This is why this fight’s only going to get uglier. If this project is built, the hurt it will impose on Searsport will be tremendous.”
Longtime Searsport Planning Board Chairman Bruce Probert sounded frustrated this week as he reflected on the antipathy and division that’s been part of the process.
“It’s just wearing very thin. Searsport is a small town. This really strains the seams,” he said. “The sooner we get over this, the better. Whatever way the vote goes, there’s going to be unhappy people.”
He said that the volunteer planning board is comprised of “reasonable people trying to make a reasonable decision.”
“It bothers me a lot, the fact that people get so emotional about it and it’s been so divisive on the community,” Probert said. “I don’t want it to split the community apart.”