SEARSPORT - The Searsport Planning Board on Monday heard two descriptions of a proposal by Topsham-based Grimmell Industries Inc. to create a scrap metal staging area at Mack Point marine terminal. Company representatives painted a picture of pristine, softball-sized pieces of shredded steel shuttled discreetly to an area out of reach of public disturbance. Opponents who attended the public hearing at Union Hall anticipated a convoy of trucks fumbling steel pieces sharp enough to slash tires and laden with toxic residue onto town roads en route to a location beyond the reach of oversight.
If approved, the proposed scrap yard probably wouldn’t be either of these things. But the widely conflicting predictions along with late changes and a flood of outside lobbying in the days before the meeting led the Planning Board to postpone a scheduled site plan review until Jan. 26.
On paper, the Grimmell Industries proposal avoids many of the pitfalls of industrial development. The company has an agreement with Sprague Energy to lease a 2.25 acre parcel inside the industrial marine terminal. The steel would be stockpiled on an existing cement pad built originally for piles of coal, and Grimmell has not proposed to build any new structures. Sprague owns all of the surrounding land, meaning there would be no direct abutters, and the scrap yard would be entirely within the fenced boundary of the port.
The area is zoned for industrial activities, and the proposed scrap yard fits the town’s junkyard ordinance. On Dec. 16, the Searsport Selectboard granted Grimmel Industries that permit, but the details still need to pass the Planning Board’s site plan review process and performance standards, a checklist that addresses potential adverse effects.
On Monday night, Tim Garrity, general manager of Grimmell Industries Inc., said the company buys junk cars, demolition waste and other mostly metal cast-offs from smaller scrap yards around Maine and Massachusetts. At a special facility in Topsham, oil and gas tanks are drained and everything but sheet metal and beams goes into a shredder that reduces cars and the like into a softball-sized mulch. The steel is then separated from plastics and other non-ferrous materials using a magnet system and the steel is cleaned separately and stockpiled before being sent by truck to ports where it can be loaded onto ships and exported.
"What's going on here [in Searsport] is a storing operation not a processing operation,” said Brian Rayback, an attorney for Pierce Atwood and who appeared with Garrity at the Planning Board meeting Monday night.
Garrity said the scrap would be stockpiled in Searsport until there was enough for a shipment. The pile would be 40-50 feet tall and would cover much of the 2.25 acre parcel, he said. The material would be moved around with a magnet crane, 35-ton diesel rock truck with bucket loader, and grappels. From the stockpile, it would be transported to the dock where it would be dumped on a temporary covering and loaded simultaneously by several grappels into multiple holds of a cargo ship.
Garrity said the material would be 100-percent steel. Planning Board chairman Bruce Probert asked if it could contain a film or dust of contaminants from mercury switches and other toxic materials used in cars and machines. Others raised questions about proximity to the water. The pile would be 525 feet from the shoreline. Jason Littlefield, environmental health and safety manager at Sprague Energy said the pad was designed so that runoff was captured in a series of retention pools to avoid pollution.
Citizens who spoke at the public hearing pointed to environmental violations and community complaints that dogged a similar facility operated by Grimmell Industries in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
"It's quite a record" said Peter Taber, of Searsport, who noted that complaints and violations predated any fines from EPA by nine years.
"It suggests they operate in a cost-of-doing-business way,” he said, meaning the company factors fines into operational costs rather than resolving the cause of violations.
Taber and others cited the many news reports of ongoing conflicts between Grimmel Industries and city residents and officials. He also pointed to Grimmell’s original estimate of 10 trucks per day, which increased to 40 in Garrity’s presentation Monday night.
"We hear all kinds of assurances,” he said.
Others spoke of the red dust clouds reported blowing from the Portsmouth pile, pieces of metal collected by local activists from the roadway and documentation of punctured tires outside of that facility and a general correlation between scrap metal yards and theft.
Jay Economy, owner of Yardarm Motel located across Route 1 from Mack Point, voiced concerns about early morning truck noise having a detrimental effect on his business. Grimmell representatives said trucks would operate between 6 a.m. and 7 p.m.
In addition to a number of citizens who spoke against the proposal on Monday, Probert said he received a document “an inch thick” opposing the scrap yard from Islesboro Islands Trust on the Friday before the meeting.
A.J. Koch Jr. of Searsport, was among the few who spoke in favor of the proposal. Koch said he worked at Sprague unloading salt, petcoke and slag and those hadn’t generated complaints.
"I can't see that iron rust is going to be any worse than petcoke dust,” he said. “It’s pretty invasive and I don't think I've heard anyone complain about petcoke dust a half mile away."
The Planning Board opted to hold off on reviewing the plans pending further study. The scrap yard is scheduled to be on the board’s Jan. 26 agenda.
Ethan Andrews can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org