2015-12-04 / Front Page

Propane project pushed back

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — Plans to build a liquid propane storage and distribution complex at the Rigby Yard railroad terminal will not be reviewed by the planning board until January, at the earliest, putting a question mark on whether NGL Supply Terminal Co. can meet a state-imposed deadline to move out of its current home on Commercial Street in Portland.

In February, Oklahoma-based NGL announced plans to lease nearly 10 acres from Pan Am Railways at Rigby Yard, located off Route 1 just below the Thornton Heights neighborhood. The company currently has a storage yard just across the Fore River, at the base of the Casco Bay Bridge, where it keeps 260,000 gallons of propane. However, the company is being forced out of that site 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 built on space now occupied by NGL.

However, the proposal got hung up in questions over how much tank storage is allowed in South Portland under city zoning ordinances. One rule prohibits installation of new aboveground 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. After initially proposing three storage tanks holding 60,000 gallons of propane each, NGL settled on a single 24,000-gallon tank, but plans to make up for the loss of fixed storage by utilizing up to 16 rail cars for a reported total of as much as 744,000 gallons of propane on site at any one time.

That amount of propane storage, coupled with the fact that the product would have to be continually moved from the rail cars to the single tank, and from there to delivery trucks, and raised fears of an explosive accident among residential neighbors of the site.

“Depending on the amount of propane that explodes, this whole neighborhood could be wiped out,” said City Councilor Brad Fox, an adamant opponent of the project.

However, NGL Regional Operations Manager Kevin Fitzgerald points out that all propane now handled by the company in Portland passes through Rigby Yard, while AmeriGas currently transloads propane directly from rail cars to delivery trucks at the rail yard.

“NGL’s proposal won’t increase rail car traffic or propane volumes beyond what is already transiting through or being stored at Rigby Yard each day right now,” he said in a Tuesday email.

The planning board was scheduled to review NGL’s application at a Dec. 8 meeting. However, that agenda item has been postponed. Between Oct. 6 and Nov. 4., various city departments, as well as its contracted engineering firm, Sebego Technics, sent questions to NGL about its proposal, asking for clarification and additional information. NGL submitted its reply Nov. 23. However, city Planning Director Tex Haeuser said Tuesday that his staff will not have time to give the new materials a thorough vetting in time for the Dec. 8 meeting, and has not yet declared the application complete. The planning board review will now not happen “until sometime in January,” Haeuser said.

Asked if the board would be able to work through NGL’s application in time for its spring deadline to vacate the Portland facility, Haeuser said, simply, “I don’t know.”

Haeuser was reluctant to offer a more precise prediction, he said, in part because of his experience with the move last year of a Department of Health and Human Services office building to South Portland. That project also was working under the gun and, when asked if the planning board could accommodate its deadline, Haeuser has said, “Well, nothing’s not possible.” That phrase was soon printed up on stickers that adorned the hard hats of construction crews who worked to get the building up on time.

“We’re just gong to do our thing here and hopefully it works for all concerned,” Haeuser said.

Meanwhile, the city council is expected to vote Dec. 9 on a moratorium proposal that would delay the NGL application for up to six months while the city works to amend fire codes.

Shortly before his Nov. 20 retirement, Fire Chief Kevin Guimond said his inspectors are using the latest standards issued by the National Fire Protection Association, although reference to those rules have not yet been written into city code. However, Fox has suggested tightening the codes to a degree that might actually prevent the NGL project from happening.

“Rigby Yard is surrounded by people, people every single one of us here was sworn to protect,” he said at a Nov. 9 council workshop.

At that session, three councilors – Maxine Beecher, Claude Morgan and Mayor Linda Cohen – opposed the moratorium. Because it takes an amendment to city zoning to institute any temporary ban on development, a supermajority of five votes is required for passage, per the city charter.

That lack of sufficient support to move the question would normally have killed the moratorium proposal. However, Morgan requested, and councilors agreed, to conduct a formal vote anyway at the next regular meeting after councilor-elect Eben Rose is sworn into office. Rose, like Fox, has been a vocal critic of the NGL facility.

Meanwhile, among area residents closely monitoring progress of the NGL project, word has begun to circulate that the company has asked for a non-disclosure agreement on aspects of its application.

Haeuser confirmed Tuesday that Fitzgerald did raise the possibility in October, but said the Nov. 23 submission makes no demand for secrecy.

“That possibility was raised to me,” Haeuser said. “As I’m sure you can imagine, there could be homeland security concerns with such a facility.

“I told them, well, we haven’t ever had that come up before, but it you want to make an argument like that, your attorney should look to our attorney and see what it goes,” Haeuser said. “As far as I know, that attorney-level discussion has not happened.

Haeuser said Tuesday that based on a “cursory review” of the materials submitted by NGL, “I see no request for secrecy on any aspect of the application.”

Haeuser said Tuesday he had just returned from vacation and had not yet had time to examine NGL’s latest submission at length. However, based on a “cursory review” of the materials, “I see no request for secrecy on any aspect of the application,” he said.

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