Candidates speak out on Searsport tank proposal, east-west highway
Belfast — Some of the candidates hoping to represent Waldo County in Augusta weighed in on a proposal from a Colorado company that wants to build a 22.7-million-gallon liquefied petroleum gas storage tank at Mack Point and the ongoing feasibility study for possible development of a more direct highway leading through Maine to Canada.
The forum was organized through the Waldo County Leadership Circle and took place at the Waldo County General Hospital Education Center Friday morning, Sept. 21. Present at Friday's debate were House District 41 candidates James Gillway (R-Searsport) and Meredith Ares (D-Searsport); House District 42 candidates Leo LaChance (R-Winterport) and Joseph Brooks (U-Winterport); House District 43 candidates Erin Herbig (D-Belfast) and Donna Hopkins (R-Belmont), House District 44 candidates Jethro Pease (R-Morrill) and Lloyd Chase (D-Liberty); House District 45 candidates Ryan Harmon (R-Palermo) and Brian Jones (D-Freedom) and Senate District 23 candidate Mike Thibodeau (R-Winterport). Thibodeau's opponent, Chip Curry (D-Belfast) was not in attendance Friday.
Moderator Lee Woodward, reading from questions provided by members of the audience, asked candidates what their positions were on both the development proposal from Colorado-based DCP Midstream and the potential creation of the east-west highway.
Thibodeau said the state is, through a feasibility study, assessing whether developing the east-west highway would be a wise choice for Maine to pursue.
“The propane tank in Searsport is a local issue,” he said, a comment that drew jeers from some in the audience. “I shouldn’t really be interjecting myself in a local issue.”
Harmon said he felt that developing the highway could be a good idea, but only if it doesn’t involve property owners' losing their land by way of eminent domain. He, like Thibodeau, said the proposal from DCP Midstream is a Searsport issue.
Jones said that, as a former firefighter, he remains concerned about the safety risks of the DCP proposal.
“I can tell you propane is highly explosive,” Jones said, adding that if the tank were to explode,“it would resemble Hiroshima in scale and devastation.”
In terms of the east-west highway, Jones criticized the state’s move to offer a private company — identified in statewide media reports as the Cianbro Corp. — the $300,000 needed to cover the cost of the feasibility study.
“That’s like hiring the teacher to do your homework,” he said.
Jones also cautioned that the highway is projected to last 60 or 70 years, but by then road transportation may not be the most cost-effective way to move goods. Instead, he suggested the state might consider improving its existing rail system.
Chase said the tank issue is in the hands of the Searsport Planning Board but “should be treated as a regional issue,” and noted that two of the towns in his district, Islesboro and Lincolnville, have expressed concerns about safety. Chase, like Jones, said he did not support the Legislature’s decision to fulfill the request from Cianbro to fund the study.
Pease said he felt the highway should be considered and that he was looking forward to seeing a plan for it. He, like Harmon, said he was concerned about a provision in the state constitution that allows the Maine Legislature to give eminent domain rights to private companies.
“The taking of land is a major concern,” he said.
Pease, also a former fire chief, said he was not familiar with the tank issue in Searsport, but agreed that “if it did blow, it would be catastrophic.” That said, Pease said he thought the chances of that were relatively minute, but he is concerned about how the LPG tankers would impact the use of the Penobscot Bay waterway.
Herbig said that while continued economic development is important for Maine, it should not come at the cost of the environment. For that reason, she said she did not support the proposed tank development.
Herbig said that, as a legislator, she did not support the use of public funds to pay for the feasibility study for the east-west highway and called the overall decision to do so “a little thoughtless.”
Herbig’s opponent, Hopkins, said she would wait for the study to be finalized before forming an opinion on the east-west highway, but said she would not support any taking of private property by way of eminent domain. In terms of the tank, Hopkins said that is Searsport’s decision to make.
Brooks said that, as a former journalist, he’d covered many stories of companies looking to bring in more industrial developments and all of those proposals were rejected, based on the expressed will of the people. Accidents like what some fear may occur with the proposed tank, said Brooks, are not supposed to happen.
“Just like with the oil in the Gulf,” said Brooks, referring to the BP oil spill in the spring of 2010.
Brooks said for now he is not in favor of the tank development, but said he is in favor of further examining the possibility of developing the east-west highway, because it would increase trade opportunities.
LaChance said he agreed that the state should “take a front-end position” on the east-west highway and said it wasn’t the first time the state had partnered with a private entity for infrastructure improvement projects –- he cited the Oxford canal, which was designed to move lumber to Portland, as an example.
He added, however, that the state should be reimbursed the money it fronted the company if and when the highway is developed.
On the tank issue, LaChance said that since the state regulates fuel businesses all over Maine, it should take more of an interest in the issue and take a harder look at the possible implications of the project.
Gillway said that while he didn’t like the idea of spending taxpayer money on the highway feasibility study, he is anxious to put the 50-year-old issue to bed once and for all.
“This is an end-all study to say we’re going to find out if it’s economically feasible,” he said.
Gillway said that when the Legislature released the funds to Cianbro, the company was ordered to repay the $300,000 to the state if the highway becomes a reality.
“If not, the $300,000 is money well spent, because we can put the issue to bed,” he said.
Gillway said since he is the Searsport town manager he would take no position on the tank.
“It is not a local issue, it is a regional issue,” said Gillway. “But it is a local decision.”
Gillway said he was confident the Planning Board would follow the proper process for making that decision, noting that Planning Board Chairman Bruce Probert has more than 43 years of experience on the board. There would also be public hearings on the matter, said Gillway, which he said would be held regardless of the fact that there is no requirement under state law to do so.
Ares said that there has been a lack of transparency on both the east-west highway and the tank proposal.
“What’s in it for the people of the region? What’s in it for the people of Maine?” she said.
Ares expressed concern that the tank would have a negative impact on the quality of life and on businesses, noting that the local tourism-related businesses along the Midcoast would be hit hardest, beginning from the time construction begins on the tank.
“It would have a tremendous impact on noise, pollution and damage to the lobster industry,” she said.