2016-02-05 / Front Page

Fire codes: Back to the drawing board

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — The latest round in the fight against allowing a liquefied petroleum gas depot to set up shop in South Portland’s Rigby Yard rail station has resulted in the addition of at least one more round to the fight.

Following a first reading of the ordinance amendment Monday, Feb. 1, the city council decided to send the new rules back to city staff for additional tweaking.

Momentum in the yearlong battle over the project has swung back and forth in recent weeks, with the council voting 3-4 on Jan. 18 to kill a proposed moratorium on propane storage developments (as a zoning change it needed five votes to pass). The planning board voted 6-1 following a Jan. 12 public hearing to recommend the city council not adopt the moratorium.

That moratorium had been proposed by City Councilor Brad Fox as a way to slow a development application submitted by NGL Supply Terminal Co., which is being forced out of its longtime home on the Portland waterfront by expansion of the International Marine Terminal.

NGL, which plans to lease 10 acres at Rigby Yard from Pan Am Railways for its new home, first submitted an application to South Portland on Jan. 20, 2015. However, that touched off pushback from residents, first over concerns the proposal did not mesh with city code, and later, as awareness of the project grew, over neighborhood fears for potential industrial accidents.

“To be honest, this whole thing is scary as hell,” said Skillings Street resident Stacy Warren, during the planning board hearing. “If this things goes through, we’re going to move.”

On Monday, the council took up a fire code drafted by city staff as a replacement for a version submitted by Fox, that had been drafted by Franklin Terrace resident George Corey.

A majority of the council, led by Councilor Claude Morgan, had criticized that effort as confusing, with a preamble supported by newspaper accounts and student papers that would make it hard to defend in court against a likely legal challenge by NGL. However, given the outcry from residents of the Thornton Heights and Cash Corner neighborhoods surrounding the rail yard, the council sent it to staff for revision. At Monday’s meeting, Morgan said he supported the results.

“I can get behind this proposal,” he said. “The citizens’ proposal was just too flawed.”

However, Fox and Councilor Eben Rose, both vocal opponents of the NGL project, stumped for the original version, saying it was designed to fight Pan Am should it intervene on NGL’s behalf, using railroad pre-emptions to local laws allowed by the federal Surface Transportation Board.

However, while Mayor Tom Blake said the city is “not afraid of fighting the railroad,” Morgan suggested residents may falter at the thought of a protracted legal battle, given the costly fight already underway with Portland Pipe Line over the city’s attempt to block any expansion effort it may pursue involving tar sands oil.

However, NGL’s application has hit a roadblock even without the delaying action — which by itself seemingly creates issues, as the company has been given until this spring to move out of its current home on the Portland waterfront, due to expansion there of the International Marine Terminal.

In a letter sent to NGL on Jan. 8, Code Enforcement Officer Pat Doucettte rejected its latest development application, which had been set for a hearing before the planning board Jan. 12, following the Nov. 23 final submission of its plans, deemed complete by city staff.

In the denial letter, Doucette said South Portland city code allows no more than 74,805 gallons of liquid propane gas to be stored overnight. NGL’s project, downgraded from its initial proposal for six, 60,000-gallon storage tanks, was for a single 24,000 gallon tank augmented by up to 16 30,000-gallon rail cars, for a total of 504,000 gallons of LP gas storage.

NGL initially said it planned to appeal Doucette’s decision. However, a company spokesman said Tuesday the plan now is to “update our proposal so that no rail cars remain in the facility overnight, thus not running afoul of the 24-hour storage ordinance.”

Rose and Fox have both criticized the new plan subsequently submitted to the city NGL, which appears to circumvent the city’s storage rules by moving rail cars off site overnight.

The council voted Monday put off the first reading of the fire code update until its March 7 meeting. That, they hoped, will give staff time to add in a challenge to railroad pre-emption, as well as to make other tweaks involving the allowed distance of the project to area homes, the nearest of which is only about 700 feet from the proposed storage area.

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