2015-10-02 / Front Page

Rigby Yard proposal meets opposition

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — A slow-moving proposal to build a propane storage facility at the Rigby rail yard on Route 1, first announced in February, hopped the fast train last week, with city denial of one concept, and rapid submission of a subsequent, formal application.

However, at least one city councilor is raising objections to the idea, even before it hits planning board review.

“Why aren’t we fighting this catastrophe-in-the-making?” asked Councilor Brad Fox in a Sept. 29 email blast to his peers, the press and other interested parties.

In February, Oklahoma-based NGL Supply Terminal Co. approached South Portland with plans to lease nearly 10 acres from Pan Am Railways at Rigby Yard. The proposal called for six above-ground tanks, designed to store liquid petroleum gas, more commonly known as propane, for distribution across the region. Each tank would have held more than 60,000 gallons of propane (or, 8,000 cubic feet) for a total of 360,000 gallons (or 48,125 cubic feet) of storage.

However, Buchanan Street resident Eben Rose — a frequent critic of the city during its two-year-long tar sands debate, and now a candidate for city council — said the project seemed to conflict with city code. One zoning ordinance prohibits installation of new above-ground storage tanks that hold more than 25,000 gallons, while another bars local storage of any fuel or “illuminating gas” in amounts that exceed 10,000 cubic feet.

Code enforcement officer Pat Doucette issued an interpretation claiming the latter rule did not apply because the propane would be liquefied. Under pressure from Rose the city hired an outside consultant to weigh in.

In a report delivered June 4 at a cost of $3,200, Portland engineering firm Woodard and Curran, said NGL’s tanks, as proposed, would always have enough gas in them to trigger the cubic-foot limit contained in city codes.

NGL then asked that its storage tanks not be viewed as such, but as pressure vessels, utilizing language not contained in city code and thus potentially not subject to its limitations.

“Pressure vessel — that’s just a different name for a storage tank,” Gailey said in a Sept. 15 interview.

“We denied that. A tank is a tank,” Gailey said, discounting the atmospheric pressure inside any given tank as a relevant factor under city code.

In August, NGL proposed building one 24,000-gallon storage tank, but asked for a waiver to build a second tank of the same size under city rules that allow for fuel storage as an “accessory use.”

On Friday, Sept. 11, Doucette issued a ruling denying that request.

“For that waiver, that second tank would have to be deemed accessory to the primary use,” Gailey said. “With NGL, the primary use is propane and, so, the second tank, also being propane, could not be deemed an accessory use to first tank.”

By Sept. 15, NGL had submitted a formal application, for just one 24,000-gallon storage tank.

“We’ve listened carefully to residents and officials in South Portland and have submitted a revised proposal that we believe conforms to all existing city ordinances,” wrote NGL’s regional operations manager Kevin Fitzgerald, in a Sept. 24 email. “The proposed $3 million state-of-the-art facility is designed to safely meet the high demand for clean-burning propane at over 50,000 homes and businesses throughout the greater Portland region.”

NGL currently has a propane storage complex at the International Marine Terminal near the Portland side of the Casco Bay Bridge. That site holds 260,000 gallons of propane. However, NGL is being forced out by the Maine Port Authority, which awarded a bid to Americold for a 6.3-acre refrigerated warehouse, about half of which is to be build on space now occupied by NGL. The Americold venture is part of a state-led effort to make the port terminal more competitive and to boost Maine’s seafood and agriculture industries. As such, the state is expected to help pay for NGL’s move. In fact, Fitzgerald noted that settling on the Rigby Yard location was “carefully selected” in close conjunction with “federal, state and local officials.”

“While the storage volumes in our proposed project are less than our existing Portland facility, design changes will allow us to drive greater operational efficiencies,” Fitzgerald said. “These changes reflect our commitment to work cooperatively with South Portland and to operate a facility that we believe complies with all existing ordinances.”

The planning board is scheduled to review NGL’s application on Oct. 27.

However, Fox is already sounding the alarm. NGL’s ability to compensate for a 336,000-gallon reduction in storage from its initial proposal will come not from “operation efficiencies,” Fox pointed out, but because the company plans to offload propane from rail cars directly onto delivery trucks.

“In addition to their one fixed storage tank, 24, or (likely many) more LPG rail cars will be transloading liquid propane, Fox wrote, noting a line in the current application, which reads: “NGL intends to construct a liquid propane fuel distribution facility involving a rail siding and above ground storage system for the transfer of propane fuel from tanker cars to distribution vehicles.”

That, Fox said, was reason to fear for the safety of all South Portland residents.

“A large number of toxic chemicals including sodium cyanide pass through Rigby Yard on a regular basis,” he wrote. “These may be sprayed into the atmosphere and ground water with an explosion of an LPG rail tank car or a fixed tank, or by just a simple tank car derailment. Are we prepared for an event like that?

“Perhaps we’ll get some answers, and some action, on Oct. 14, at a council workshop,” Fox said, adding, “I hope everyone attends.”

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