2015-11-13 / Front Page

Propane issue moves to council

By Duke Harrington
Staff writer

South Portland City Councilor Brad Fox brandishes an aerial photo of the Rigby Yard rail terminal and surrounding neighborhoods during Monday night's council meeting, using the prop to argue that a proposed propane distribution facility at the yard is too dangerous to be allowed. (Courtesy of SPC-TV)South Portland City Councilor Brad Fox brandishes an aerial photo of the Rigby Yard rail terminal and surrounding neighborhoods during Monday night's council meeting, using the prop to argue that a proposed propane distribution facility at the yard is too dangerous to be allowed. (Courtesy of SPC-TV)SOUTH PORTLAND — Although a majority of city council members opposed trying roadblock a proposed propane storage facility during a workshop Monday, Nov. 9, they will still conduct a formal vote.

That decision was a rare break from form for the South Portland City Council.

“Traditionally, we have not brought something forward that did not have enough support to get it passed,” said Mayor Linda Cohen.

“But it’s very close and it is a controversial item,” said Mayor-elect Tom Blake.

During debate at Monday’s workshop, the second on the topic, Cohen opposed adopting a six-month moratorium on distribution centers for liquefied petroleum gas, more commonly known as propane. She was joined on that front by Councilors Maxine Beecher and Claude Morgan.

In February, Oklahoma-based NGL Supply Terminal Co. announced plans to lease nearly 10 acres from Pan Am Railways at Rigby Yard, located off Route 1 just below the Thornton Heights neighborhood, for a propane storage and distribution center. The company has a storage yard across the Fore River in Portland, where it keeps 260,000 gallons of propane. However, the company is being forced out of that site by 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.

Following its initial announcement, NGL spent much of the summer wrangling with South Portland officials over just how much propane it can keep on hand at Rigby Yard under local ordinances. After initially proposing three storage tanks holding 60,000 gallons of propane each, NGL settled on a single 24,000 tank, but is making up for the loss of fixed storage by utilizing up to 16 rail cars, transloading propane through the tank, for a reported total of as much as 744,000 gallons of propane on site at any one time.

Councilors Brad Fox and Patti Smith, along with Blake, supported instituting a moratorium to slow the project and give the city more time to study a proposal. NGL currently has a Dec. 8 hearing scheduled before the planning board and is driving toward a spring deadline to vacate the Portland location.

Councilor Melissa Linscott was noncommittal about supporting the moratorium, appearing to be against it based on her line of questioning, but also saying she would not rule it out. However, Linscott chose not to run for re-election and is due to be replaced on the council Dec. 7 when her replacement, Eben Rose, elected Nov. 3, is sworn into office.

Rose has led the charge against the NGL proposal, raising red flags when the city appeared ready to move on the original proposal, based on interpretation of ordinance restrictions by city code enforcement officer Pat Doucette. Rose’s complaints forced the city to hire an outside consultant, who recommended against Doucette’s view, which would have allowed the three 60,000-gallon tanks.

Rose spoke against the NGL proposal again during Monday’s meeting, one of 20 residents who spent nearly an hour entreating the council to adopt a moratorium.

Many of the residents who spoke at Monday’s meeting were familiar faces from the city’s longfought battle over diluted bitumen, or “tar sands oil.” In that fight, the council adopted a moratorium on importation of the product, even though no proposal to do so was on the table. The council even went so far as to state publically that, in that case, the moratorium was meant not to gather facts and data about the product and its dangers. Instead, that moratorium was intended solely to block any possible move to import the product while a special committee figured out a way to legally ban it from flowing through the city. Almost as soon as that ban was in place, Portland Pipe Line Corp. filed suit in U.S. District Court, still pending, to have the ban overturned.

Cohen said Monday she felt the tar sands moratorium and resulting ban had been the right thing to do, based on strong public opposition to the product ever flowing through local ports from Canada. However, Cohen opposed adopting the same approach with propane, in part, she said, because there’s so much of it already in the city, at existing storage sites and on rail cars, not to mention in tanks at homes, businesses and city schools.

“We already have propane in this city,” she said. “There are so many safety issues already that I don’t think we could even begin to touch them in a year.

“If it can’t come in to South Portland (at Rigby Yard), it has to come in from someplace father away,” Cohen said. “How else will you heat your homes?

“We can’t just keep changing the rules every time we don’t like a project,” Cohen added. “If you want to put a project in this city you ought to know the rules going in and you ought to be able to depend on them to some extent.”

“I think it’s bait-andswitch,” Morgan said. “It feels very much like we want to change the rules mid-game and I do think that makes us susceptible to all sort of legal action. It’s nice to be brave and embrace every fight, but I don’t believe we have the resources to do that.

“I think our process has been flawed and sullied to begin with,” Morgan added, referring to Fox’s habit of sending email blasts about the dangers of propane, and sharing councilor and city manager communications on the topic with the press.

“Who knows in a cavil action what more we might find out?” Morgan said.

“Rigby Yard is surrounded by people, people every single one of us here was sworn to protect,” Fox said. “What’s our job? It’s not to argue about whether or not we’re going to get sued, it’s to try and find a way to protect all of these people who live surrounding this part of Rigby Yard, where there is going to be a massive new propane facility. Depending on the amount of propane that explodes, this whole neighborhood could be wiped out.”

Fox then turned to Fire Chief Kevin Guimond for support.

“Do you think it’s a smart idea to put that quantity of propane next to those houses that are 500 feet way?” he asked. “Can you guarantee that none of the types of explosions that have happened elsewhere won’t happen here?”

“Nobody is going to stand here in an educated manner and guarantee anything,” Guimond said. “But what I will say is that there are probably 100 rail cars of propane in that rail yard tonight. I feel, in my professional opinion, if we can limit the number of cars to a fixed facility, with fixed firefighting compliances, I think that’s a safer alternative than transloading.”

Guimond also said he felt nothing would be gained by stalling for time. Existing codes, he said, already contain all restrictions necessary for fire department inspectors to ensure safe handling of propane at any new storage yard.

“We feel we have the codes in place we need to make this decision,” he said. “We don’t need any more info. It’s pretty straightforward for us. We have clarity.”

That seemed sufficient for Beecher.

“I hate the fact that we live in a city that has a lot of gas and all kinds of chemicals that could go boom,” she said. “But, at the same time, there are some questions that still need to be answered before I decide if we need to look as far as a moratorium.”

Ultimately, Beecher said, there appeared to be little the city can do prevent NGL’s project, especially given that state and federal law’s governing transport of hazardous materials and interstate commerce may trump local ordinances in the matter.

“My problem is with this moratorium, I don’t think we are going to gain anything in the process,” Beecher said. “I wish this had never come, but unless I hear something that really changes my mind, I don’t think we are going to gain anything by just postponing this decision.”

Still, others on the council were adamant that peace of mind is vital to signing off on any expanded storage of combustibles within city limits

“We don’t know these things,” Smith said, referring to questions raised by the public, including that of one resident who wanted to know “the total explosive capacity” of all petroleum products in the city, including the many oil storage tanks.

“Rather than just saying, ‘We don’t know,’ and let’s move on to the next topic du jour, we should not be afraid to look into it,” Smith said. “We’re just gathering information, and if you do it with an open mind, saying we don’t know what will come out of it, but something will, then it’s worth our time. But for us to just quickly go through something that has concern to it is us not doing our jobs.”

In addition to the moratorium, Smith also stumped for updated fire codes and a clearly defined emergency evacuation plans, easily accessible to the public.

“Is it such on onerous burden on people to try and save a life?” Smith asked.

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