'THEY FILLED IN THE BLANKS'

Searsport LPG proposal all there, awaits review

Planning Board deems developer's application complete, opponents not so sure.
Posted:  Tuesday, October 9, 2012 - 9:00am
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Story Location:
Mack Point
Searsport  Maine
United States

SEARSPORT – With 50 citizens and representatives of television and print media in attendance Monday night, the Searsport Planning Board deemed complete an application by Colorado-based DCP Midstream to construct a liquefied petroleum gas terminal at Mack Point.

Monday's meeting was the continuation of a review that stalled in June when the Planning Board found DCP's application to be incomplete. The company filled in the major gap when it was granted a permit from the Maine Fuel Board in September.

Final approval of the propane terminal is unlikely to be considered before December. In the meantime the Planning Board is expecting the results of two major studies measuring the risk and economic impact of the facility. A public hearing will also be held to allow for public comment, most likely during the last week of November.

The proposed LPG terminal would be constructed on a parcel of land east of Route 1, adjacent to the deep water cargo port at Mack Point. The terminal would receive supercooled propane by cargo ship and distribute it by truck. In the middle of this supply chain would sit the most prominent and controversial feature, the development a 22.7-million-gallon storage tank that would be the largest on the East Coast.

As such, Monday's vote had little of the drama of past meetings. But several opponents of the project, though barred from addressing the subject overtly to the Planning Board, managed to question the legality of the process and ask for assurances that they would be heard before the project is approved. 

The proposed LPG terminal would be constructed on a parcel of land east of Route 1, adjacent to the deep water cargo port at Mack Point. The terminal would receive supercooled propane by cargo ship and distribute it by truck. In the middle of this supply chain would sit the most prominent and controversial feature, the development a 22.7-million-gallon storage tank that would be the largest on the East Coast.

The tank catalyzed opposition in Searsport, where protesters organized under the monniker Thanks But No Tank. Gradually, residents of neighboring communities have become involved with the issue. Opponents have characterized the tank variously as a hazard, an eyesore, and a prelude to continued expansion of the deep water cargo port. Some have questioned why such a large capacity tank is needed in Searsport.

In February, the towns of North Haven and Islesboro voiced public concern over the proposal. Rockland and Belfast have each sent letters of concern, and on Oct. 2 at the request of TBNT members, the Belfast City Council voted to formally ask its neighboring Planning Board to await the results of a privately-funded study by Good Harbors Techmark, the consulting firm of former U.S. security advisor Richard Clarke.

On Monday night, Steve Hinchman, attorney for TBNT and Islesboro Islands Trust, underwriter of the Good Harbors study, said the firm's All Hazards Risk Assessment would completed by mid-November at the earliest. Planning Board Chairman Bruce Probert said the board would consider the study provided it is available by the end of November. The town is also awaiting results from its own ordered economic impact study, which Probert said would also be available in November.

Town law requires a public hearing within 30 days of the acceptance of the application. But in light of the pending reports, Probert appealed to a representative for DCP Midstream who said the company would be willing to wait until the end of November.

Board members and town attorney Kristin Collins discussed the procedure for the public hearing — who should be able to speak, for how long, and how should any cross examination be handled? The board agreed to give "interested parties" some amount of time to present their cases and direct questions to DCP Midstream and the Planning Board. Collins said the interpretation of an "interested party" would be somewhat flexible but would center on whether the person stood to be harmed, or to benefit, by the development more than someone else in the region.

"This is going to be a fluid process," she said. "We just don't want things to get too back-and-forth."

With the stated goal of getting an idea in advance of how many people would be testifying, the board said speakers must notify the the board at least 14 days in advance of the hearing, stating who they are and how they stand to be affected. Collins added that any member of the public would have the right to speak at the hearing — here she suggested a time limit of 5 minutes, with the potential for exceptions — but wouldn't have the same right to cross-examine DCP as an "interested party."

Board member Brian Callahan asked about drop-ins who might be interested parties. Collins said it would be up to the board, but she would lean toward being flexible.

The board has not accepted in-person public comment on the DCP application since a June 11 meeting, at which Probert said the public comments from opponents "got out of hand."

As a consequence, those who addressed the Board on Monday with concerns about the proposal had to either question the process, or frame their comments as sometimes-awkward hypothetical scenarios.

Hinchman addressed what he called the "gag order" put on the public, calling it a "violation of the due process rights of members of the community."

"It's the wrong way to do business, and it's not the way it's been done before," he said. "... How do I comment on the rules?"

Kim Ervin Tucker, an attorney working with Hinchman on behalf of TBNT and IIT, took up a thread started by Hinchman on "ring fencing," or the practice of isolating a subsidiary from the parent company. Other residents have expressed concern about the developer operating as a limited liability company. The fear being that the designation protects the parent company from any safety or economic risks associated with running the facility.

Tucker asked the board to "take a very detailed precise look at who owns what," charging that all the permits for the application were received under different names.

"The board is aware of this," Probert said. "It's been at the top of our heads."

Speaking after the meeting, Probert said the Planning Board's acceptance of an application as complete says only that the applicant completed all the sections.

"They filled in the blanks," he said.

Whether the answers turn out to be correct remains to be seen.

Penobscot Bay Pilot reporter Ethan Andrews can be reached at ethanandrews@penbaypilot.com