Searsport tank hearings

Opponents accuse town officials of lobbying for applicant

Additional public session on DCP proposal set for Feb. 25
By Tanya Mitchell | Feb 19, 2013
Photo by: Tanya Mitchell From left, Searsport Planning Board Chairman Bruce Probert, board member Brian Callahan and alternates Lee-Ann Horowitz and Cindy Gallant go over materials related to the proposal from DCP Midstream during the public hearing on the matter Tuesday night, Feb. 12 at Searsport District High School.

Searsport — Materials gained through a Freedom of Access request to the town from project opponents which sought all documents relating to the development proposal from DCP Midstream were at the heart of assertions that some town officials were conducting public relations work to the advantage of the company.

That was the argument from a panel of speakers with Thanks But No Tank (TBNT) and other interested parties who have expressed opposition to the proposal from the Colorado-based company to construct a 22.7-million-gallon liquefied petroleum gas storage tank at Mack Point.

At the public hearing Tuesday, Feb. 12, TBNT coordinator Ken Agabian and attorney Kim Tucker told the Searsport Planning Board of their findings after obtaining all records pertaining to the project. Tucker said she submitted the request June 20, 2012, and the town produced those documents Aug. 17.

After reviewing the records, which included letters from Searsport public safety officials to the Army Corps of Engineers and emailed correspondence between those officials and DCP representatives, Tucker said she was unable to find documents supporting the claims of local emergency responders suggesting that the project would not result in additional costs for the town.

Tucker said that's a problem because it suggests the project cannot meet the performance standard that specifies that a development must not result in an unreasonable effect on municipal services.

"There are no evaluations or materials in this file that are needed to determine if performance standard number 11 can be satisfied," said Tucker.

Questioning positions of town officials

Tucker also contended that some of the emailed correspondence from public safety officials and Facebook postings suggest some of those town officials were lobbying for DCP. Tucker specifically noted the activities of former Searsport Fire Chief Jim Dittmeier, particularly in an email between Dittmeier and Toby McGrath, a political director for the government relations firm Maine Street Solutions, a firm DCP has worked with in Maine.

In the email, dated Jan. 4, 2012, McGrath told Dittmeier he was working to "cultivate folks in Searsport" who were willing to sign off on letters supporting the project. McGrath further stated he would fill Dittmeier in on the "game plan."

The same thread of emails also showed DCP representatives encouraged Dittmeier and others in town to write letters expressing support for the proposal to the local newspapers, and offered the assistance of the company's Maine-based spokesperson, Crystal Canning. There were also emails suggesting the company encouraged Dittmeier and other locals to write letters of support to the Army Corps of Engineers, Tucker said.

Tucker said written correspondence dated Feb. 18, 2011, from Ambulance Service Director Corey Morse to DCP Midstream New England Asset Director Jeffrey Hurteau regarding the then-upcoming town meeting vote to increase the height restrictions in the Industrial Zone had Morse telling Hurteau, "We will do our best to get the citizens out to vote."

Tucker also read a copy of an email from Morse to The Republican Journal criticizing the amount of coverage he felt the project opposition had, compared to stories about people showing support for the project.

On Jan. 11, 2012, Tucker said a letter from the Searsport Fire Department stated that the department is sufficiently equipped and trained to meet the needs of the community if DCP were to move forward with the project, noting there is a county-wide mutual aid agreement in place. Tucker said the only request from the fire department was for a walk-through of the completed facility for training and planning purposes and upgrades to the fire hydrants.

In March 2011, Tucker further said, Morse wrote Hurteau specifying turnout gear the ambulance service could use that was "outside our budget limitations" that would ensure emergency responders would be better protected from potential hazards.

Tucker also spoke of a Facebook campaign that involved Dittmeier, Searsport firefighter A.J. Koch and Gayle McKeige, who in July was appointed the town's deputy emergency management director. That campaign, stated Tucker, was aimed at boycotting the businesses of those who had expressed opposition to the project.

All of this shows, Tucker argued, that town officials spent more time generating public support for the project than they did evaluating the resources currently available to the town.

"This does not show a hard, unbiased look at this by town officials," said Tucker.

A heated discussion

Later in the evening, former Searsport Selectman and firefighter Jack Merrithew spoke to issues the town faces, chiefly that Searsport, like other small communities, relies on mutual aid to fill manpower and equipment needs.

"Mutual aid is only as good as the availability of the manpower and the equipment," he stated.

Merrithew noted that most large LPG sites neighbor urban areas that have resources like fire tugs and hundreds of firefighters in the immediate vicinity. Merrithew said while the town has well trained emergency personnel who can meet the current needs of residents, the arrival of DCP would be a game-changer, resulting in an increased need for training and equipment.

Merrithew called attention to the June 2011 fire at one of the Irving tanks. He said that incident was a good example of the difficulties the town may face when responding to a similar event.

"It seems manpower, or lack of it, was a real issue," said Merrithew. He said he disagreed with the sentiment some in town have expressed about the tank proposal's being solely a Searsport issue.

"I would agree if we were a stand-alone community, but we are not," he said. "Our problem becomes our neighbors' problem also."

While speaking of transportation-related concerns about the project, Searsport Shores Campground co-owner Astrig Tanguay called attention to several LPG-related accidents, fires and explosions she said firefighters around the country have responded to in the past couple of years. Tanguay particularly noted an accident in Bath that left one dead after a home in Bath exploded in an accident that fire investigators suspect may have been linked to the propane heating system.

"These are all accidents that happen every single week in the United States," said Tanguay. "... How can we bring this into our bay?"

Later in the meeting, Hurteau testified that while Waldo County Emergency Management reported that the county has access to three ladder trucks housed in Belfast, Unity and Liberty, the use of that type of equipment is not advisable for fighting an LPG fire. That's because firefighters run the risk of being blown off a ladder truck in the event of an explosion, an instance that occurred at an LPG fire in the United States about 40 years ago. That, said Hurteau, is why the standards for fighting those kinds of fires changed to exclude the use of ladder trucks.

Hurteau also said there are so many redundancies in the safety features included in the LPG facility design that it would "lessen the need for manpower from the fire department." Some emergency shut-off valves, said Hurteau, can and will activate without any human intervention.

Out of the entire operating system for an LPG plant, Hurteau said, the transfer hose "is the weak link," because it is a temporary part of the everyday operation, but those hoses are regularly tested and replaced to ensure safety.

Hurteau added that the company's emergency response plan covers scenarios involving extreme weather, and in some cases, the plant would cease operations to allow emergency responders to deal with storm-related calls and emergencies.

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