2014-12-12 / Front Page

Cape to review transfer station

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

Herb Dennison Herb Dennison CAPE ELIZABETH — On Monday, two weeks to the day after Cape Elizabeth’s longtime public works director was killed in an accident at the transfer station, the town created a special citizen’s committee to review operations at the facility and recommend safety enhancements.

Members of the seven-member group, which will include one town councilor, one member of the town’s recycling committee, and five residents, will be selected by town council Chairman Kathy Ray. It will look into “long-term solutions for the handling of solid waste and recyclable materials” and submit a list of proposed changes to the council no later than June 30.

By the time the committee holds its first meeting, it will have information on short-term fixes advised by Portland engineering firm Woodard and Curran. That report was commissioned immediately after the accident and is due Monday, Dec. 22. It is not yet known how much that report will cost.

“We don’t have a full written proposal yet from Woodard and

Curran, so I’ll be coming back at some point to ask for the money,” said

Town Manager Michael McGovern, at Monday’s council meeting.

Money, however, was not a concern at Monday’s meeting, where all attention was focused on the loss of

Herb Dennison, 79, killed Nov. 24, when a vehicle backed into him while he was unloading household trash into “the hopper.”

The vehicle, a Ford Explorer driven by Christine Sharp-Lopez, 72, of Cape Elizabeth, hit Dennison at what Police Chief Neil Williams has called “a high rate of speed,” and knocked him into the bin used to hold trash until compacted into a trailer for transport to the ecomaine water-to-energy facility in Portland.

Dennison was declared dead when emergency personnel arrived on the scene.

“This was just a terrible tragedy, most affecting the Dennison family, but it’s had an impact on everyone else as well,” McGovern said. “People feel very uncomfortable at the transfer station now. I think everyone going there feels it could have happened to anyone. So, this really affects the whole community.”

Dennison went to work for the Cape Elizabeth Public Works Department in 1955 and was director from 1968 until his retirement in 1981, during which time he also was the town’s sewer superintendent and road commissioner. Dennison also was a long-time member of Hose Company No. 2 on the volunteer fire department and served several stints as acting town manager, including a six-month period in 1978.

Dennison was woven into the fabric of Cape Elizabeth, leaving an impact that is felt to this day. In addition to hiring and training the town’s current public works director, Bob Malley, Dennison also was responsible for hiring Parks Director Forest King and McGovern.

“He was one of the nice people and to have his life ended the way it did, everything about it seemed wrong,” McGovern said. “Knowing what this has been like for the town staff that was involved, I can’t imagine what this has been like for the Dennison family.”

“I know I speak for the entire town council when I express our very deep sympathy to the entire Dennison family and to all who had known Herb Dennison for so long,” agreed outgoing council Chairman Jessica Sullivan. “I also would like to express our gratitude for the unwavering professionalism of staff during the events and incredibly difficult challenges.”

That sentiment was echoed at Monday’s meeting by Dennison’s son, Mark Dennison, of South Portland.

“We’ve gone tough a very tragic time in the last few weeks. We’ve been dealt one hell of a blow, to put it blunt,” said Dennison, noting that on the same day his father was killed, his mother also lost her only surviving sibling.

As he stood at the podium and expressed his personal thanks to town staff, Dennison choked up and burst into tears at several points.

Dennison thanked Malley, who personally plowed the cemetery following a recent storm, to make sure Herb Dennison’s burial could go on as planned. He also commended Williams, noting that the chief has skipped a planned vacation in order to lead the funeral procession.

“I just want you guys to know how much that meant to me and my family,” Dennison said. “I take my hat off to that man.”

Dennison also offered a public apology to Fire Chief Peter Gleason. Following the accident, Dennison had climbed down into the hopper where is father had been killed, and, he said, “dropped an F-bomb” when initially ordered out by Gleason.

“I needed a few minutes to pay my final respects to my father down in that dumpster,” Dennison said. “He gave me it, and I can’t thank him enough.”

However, Dennison said he has been unable to return to the transfer station since then, taking the trash he hauls for his family, including his son, public works employee Josh Dennison, to another location.

“The way the dump is run right now, it can’t be run that way any more. It’s not safe,” said Dennison, pointing to the “bottleneck” that occurs at the three parking spaces where vehicles back up to the hopper for unloading. Because of the overflow, many people walk their trash to the bin, as Herb Dennison was doing when he was hit. Dennison also noted congestion at the swap shop, suggesting the entire building be relocated to another spot at the facility that might better accommodate high traffic patterns.

“Unfortunately, my dad lost his life up there, but we have to address this as soon as possible,” said Dennison, as he practically pleaded with councilors.

“Please, revisit the safety up there,” he said, “because you’ve mended the gate, but you’ve done nothing else for safety barriers up there. I understand we can’t do things overnight, but I’m just real uncomfortable. I don’t want any other resident or business owner to ever have to go through what me and Josh went through two weeks ago tonight.”

McGovern, who was in Manila on the day of the accident doing work for the Rotary Club, commended town staff for their handling of the accident during his absence. He also acknowledged that safety has been a concern at the transfer facility for some time. As recently as September the council addressed the need to redesign the layout of the transfer station, largely unchanged since it was built in the 1970s. At that time, the council put review of the facility on its list of goals for 2015. A capital needs assessment, potentially to include replacement of the 38-year-old hopper, was to be addressed in the next fiscal year. That timetable was pushed up Monday with the formation of the new committee.

An investigation into the accident, including a “vehicle autopsy” to determine whether a mechanical issue caused the sudden reverse acceleration of Sharp-Lopez’ Explorer, is underway, Williams said. Once complete, a report will be turned over to the Cumberland County District Attorney’s Office, which will decide if any charges will be filed related to the incident.

“The woman who was driving, she’s also going through a very tough time,” McGovern said. “We think of her as well. We do need to make some changes up there.”

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