A clash of economic values tops the bill at Searsport’s annual town meeting on Saturday. The Waldo County town must decide whether or not to call a time-out on a proposal to build a $40 million liquid propane facility at the port. Caution is warranted. But residents should consider that allowing the project to move forward will not cause the sky to fall.
Opponents of DCP Midstream’s project, which already has won state Department of Environmental Protection approval, have drafted a moratorium ordinance which, if approved at the meeting, would halt construction for about two months. The moratorium is a legal tool municipalities have when an unanticipated proposal comes before them.
The moratorium drafted by the citizen opposition group, Thanks But No Tank, also creates a committee to review the town’s zoning ordinance to address concerns about the tank.
Opponents have raised a number of concerns with the 137-foot-tall, 23-million-gallon tank. They include the potential for a catastrophic fire which could consume much of the town and for the ships delivering the fuel to be targets for terrorists. Those are real concerns, but they must be weighed within the context of the current Mack Point port facility, which includes 16 tanks of about 10 million gallons each of various fuels, including highly volatile gasoline.
The industrial liquids port, which has been operating for more than 50 years, has a good safety record. Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, security has been further tightened. If the moratorium is approved, the committee that works on ordinance changes may identify more safety improvements that could be made. One logical improvement opponents have suggested is a townwide emergency warning system, should there be a leak or fire at the port facility or at the nearby chemical plant.
Opponents also worry about increased truck traffic the propane facility will generate. There may be little that can be done to mitigate such traffic. The port is busy and will get busier. And that raises a concern that goes beyond Searsport: transportation by ship is the most cost-effective, fuel-efficient mode.
State government for decades has worked to increase maritime transportation through its three ports in Portland, Eastport and Searsport. As a means of limiting carbon pollution and increasing Maine’s role as a business hub, this is wise. Maine also lacks propane storage infrastructure, so a bulk tank that can supply much of Maine is a step toward energy security.
In their efforts to persuade fellow residents to support the moratorium, opponents have made hyperbolic arguments and spun conspiracy theories. Yet their most compelling argument against the project may be the simplest to understand — to tourists driving by along Route 1, the tank could look like Dracula’s tower.
Screening such a large tank may be difficult, if not impossible. And even though other fuel tanks lie less than a quarter mile from Route 1, they’re not visible to drivers.
In the end, any sensible resolution to the conflict is tied to the integrity of the process. Last year in adjacent Frankfort, residents opposing a wind power project won passage of an ordinance that created a committee to adopt rules to protect — ostensibly, anyway — nearby residents. The ordinance appointed only opponents to the committee, and the standards they crafted were impossible for the wind power company to meet, killing the project.
The Searsport process is similar, though just one-third of the committee considering zoning changes will be opponents. The Thanks But No Tank group pledges not to seek a six-month extension of the moratorium. Residents voting at the town meeting can conclude that a two-month delay to review rules is prudent; but if those two months become six or 12 more months, the intent of the committee can and should be challenged.