Searsport tank would threaten human health, environment

Posted March 25, 2013, at 1:30 p.m.
Dr. Susan Shaw
Courtesy of Maine Environmental Research Institute
Dr. Susan Shaw

On March 27, the Searsport Planning Board will consider a permit application from DCP Midstream Partners to build a liquid propane gas storage and terminal facility at Searsport’s Mack Point.

The board is charged with determining whether the LPG project meets the standards described in four Searsport town ordinances: site plan review, land use, shoreland zoning and floodplain management. When considering “unreasonable adverse effects” of the project, we urge the board to take seriously the independent all-hazards risk assessment from Good Harbor Techmart presented in February and commissioned by the nonprofit Islesboro Islands Trust.

The report cites three overarching and compelling issues: The site is too small, the community is too close and the region is unprepared to respond adequately if a major problem occurs.

Propane gas is highly flammable, and prevailing winds could direct it toward an ignition source anywhere. As a marine toxicologist who witnessed first-hand the environmental tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico when BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, I can speak to the hazards involved in siting such a large liquid propane gas operation in close proximity to communities.

Accidents do happen. The 2010 Gulf catastrophe was certainly never anticipated, and despite DCP’s assurances to the contrary, the likelihood of an accident at the Searsport site cannot be dismissed. Mistakes are inevitable, and this operating company has a disturbing track record of documented environmental and safety violations throughout the U.S.

This would be one of the largest LPG facilities in the world and the largest on the U.S. East Coast — a 14-story, 22.7-million-gallon mega tank with a 75-foot tower and a deep-water pier and unloading facility occupying 43 acres that would be surrounded by other businesses and residences. Some are as close as 500 feet, which is significantly inside the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s half-mile blast zone limit. The U.S. Coast Guard predicts a two-mile vapor cloud and thermal hazard zone in the event of an explosion.

The Good Harbor analysis points to the unrealistic assumptions that have been made concerning the local capacity to manage an accident. Because there is no cost-sharing plan in place, risk mitigation expenses will shift disproportionately to the municipality, the state and the federal agencies — and, in turn, the taxpayer. Worse, the Searsport volunteer fire department, police and EMS are woefully under-equipped for an LPG disaster response, and there is no emergency plan in place for regionwide first responder collaboration or assistance.

As an environmental organization, we have serious concerns about threats to the marine and terrestrial environment. Searsport harbor is not deep enough for the deep draught LPG tankers and will require expensive and environmentally destructive dredging. The Army Corps of Engineers did not conduct a full environmental impact review mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act, even though the proposed LPG terminal is of the same scale as LNG terminals for which this is normally required.

According to the DCP application, the facility would release 108 tons of industrial pollutants annually into air that is often heavy and moist from fog and keeps airborne pollutants close to the ground, thus contaminating humans and wildlife. Long Cove, adjacent to the site, will likely become contaminated by seeping surface and groundwaters containing chemicals, diesel fuel and hydraulic fluids. As recently as 2010, DCP has violated the Clean Air Act by issuing “extremely hazardous substances” at their plants in Texas and New Mexico.

Changing market economics now means that the U.S. no longer needs to import propane. Terminals throughout the country are converting from import to export facilities. This raises serious questions about the future of the Searsport terminal and the possibility that the owners would want to convert it for exporting gas. This would create security issues, an even greater risk profile and exponentially more pollution from propane traffic on roads, rails and in Penobscot Bay.

One hundred temporary construction jobs and eight to 10 permanent positions do not justify such overwhelming risks to human health and the environment. We urge the Searsport board to reject the project on the grounds that the hazards far outweigh any potential benefits.

Dr. Susan Shaw is president and founder of the Marine Environmental Research Institute in Blue Hill and is a professor of public health at the State University of New York. She is an environmental toxicologist whose research focuses on chemical contaminants in the marine and human environment. In 2012, she received MaineBiz Magazine’s “Next” award for “shaping the economy and the future of Maine.”

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