Over the past year residents have debated the merits and downsides of allowing construction of a 22.7-million-gallon liquefied petroleum gas storage tank at Mack Point.

And as this year’s annual March town meeting draws nearer, so too does the day when voters will decide whether to enact a six-month moratorium on all LPG-related developments in town.

With a moratorium having the potential to at the very least stall the plans of the developers, Colorado-based DCP Midstream, the issue has heated up in recent weeks and has quickly become one of regional interest.

Stall tactic or project killer?

This past fall, some area residents and business owners formed a coalition that has since become recognized as “Thanks but no Tank,” a group that aims to inform residents and town officials about concerns regarding the potential development.

Those concerns have included everything from how the existence of the proposed 137-foot-tall storage tank will impact the view and tourism-related businesses along the Route 1 corridor to overall safety, and whether local emergency departments have the training and resources necessary to handle a large-scale accident at the facility.

TBNT members have been mainstays at meetings of the Searsport Board of Selectmen, where they have raised those questions and concerns. In November, the group gathered enough signatures to pose the moratorium question to town meeting voters.

The draft language states that the moratorium is necessary because “the town’s existing comprehensive plan, land use ordinance and site plan ordinance are inadequate to prevent serious public harm from the development of an LPG terminal and/or storage facility along the Route 1 corridor.”

The document specifies what is included under the term “serious public harm” that could come with the presence of an LPG terminal, including “negative environmental impacts on both the natural and human environments, negative traffic impacts, negative visual impacts, reduction in property values, and a negative economic impact on [Route] 1 businesses dependent on tourism.”

The draft also states that adoption of the moratorium will drive the formation of an independent review committee that will examine existing town ordinances. The committee would consist of three appointees of the board of selectmen, three appointees of TBNT (to be designated by TBNT member and Searsport businesswoman Astrig Tanguay) and three members randomly drawn from a pool of volunteers who are also registered voters in Searsport.

When asked on Jan. 17 about what impact TBNT hopes the moratorium will have on the DCP Midstream proposal, Tanguay reiterated what she and fellow TBNT members have already stated at several public meetings — that the intent of the moratorium is to make sure the town has the necessary guidelines in place to keep the community safe. It is not, she said, intended to serve as a roundabout way of killing the project.

“It’s to allow us time to go over those ordinances,” she said.

DCP Midstream representatives who were in the area recently to talk with locals, town officials and the media said they see it differently, however.

Company spokeswoman Roz Elliott said the moratorium, if adopted, would set an unusual precedent because the resulting review process would allow some residents to act as the “self-appointed judge and jury” on the issue.

Elliott said during her chats with some Searsport residents, she found a fair amount of locals who agreed with that sentiment.

“It’s outside of the town [government] structure that Maine people hold so dear,” said Elloitt, “… It’s giving permission to an outside body to rewrite the rules.”

Elloitt said by passing the moratorium, voters would grant those who oppose the company’s proposal a way to also delay the project.

Crystal Canney, president of the Maine-based public relations firm Canney Communications, is working with DCP on the Searsport project. She said the makeup of the review committee, as described in the moratorium petition, is “disrespectful” of the democratic process because it grants certain powers to Tanguay, who Canney said is an unelected, unappointed individual.

Elloitt said officials from other Maine towns have indicated interest in hosting the project if plans in Searsport fall through, but Mack Point is still considered the most optimal location due to its existing docks, access to truck and rail transportation and ample space for ships to enter the harbor.

“It’s already an industrial zone, whether people like it or not,” she said.

Elloitt pointed to the town’s seafaring roots, and said the existing operations of Sprague Energy at Mack Point and GAC Chemical Corporation at nearby Kidder Point are evidence of the town’s continued dependence on its port.

“The sea captains of old would be saying, ‘I hear you,'” she said.

When asked to expound on how adoption of the moratorium might affect the company’s plans, Elloitt indicated the company would take a wait-and-see approach with the intentions of moving forward with the Searsport project — that is, unless voters approve recommended ordinance changes from the independent review committee that would prevent that.

Toby McGrath, a political director with the government relations firm Maine Street Solutions who joined DCP Midstream representatives for a Thursday, Jan. 18 meeting with the VillageSoup editorial board, added, “There are other opportunities.”

A vocal opposition

On Jan. 17, some TBNT members updated selectmen on their efforts to learn more about the town’s emergency preparedness plans and resources during the portion of the meeting dedicated to public comment.

Others used a rather conspicuous visual aid to bring attention to what they said would be the size and scope of the proposed project, and again asked town officials to consider what the region might lose if DCP Midstream moves into town.

A written statement that was jointly authored by Tanguay, Anna Kessler and Betty Schopmeyer, was read aloud by Kessler. It outlined a Jan. 13 meeting that was held at Union Hall that included the three women, Town Manager James Gillway and Searsport Emergency Management Director Almon “Bud” Rivers.

“Given that we have a significant number of hazardous materials and extremely hazardous substances stored in and transported through Searsport every day, and a proposal potentially coming for increasing that amount by many orders of magnitude, we feel that the responsibilities of emergency management are far greater here than in other towns,” Kessler said.

Kessler said that Jan. 13 meeting, which spanned several hours, included a comparison of the town’s emergency plan with guidelines set forth at the county level. The group also agreed to meet with Rivers again to go over details of the town’s existing plan.

The goal of the meetings, Kessler said, is to make the citizens of the region aware of “the dangers in the community” and to foster an understanding of the plan for responding to any emergency situation involving the aforementioned dangers.

Kessler stressed that it is not an effort to cause panic but to give residents the information they need to respond quickly in the event of an emergency.

“Mr. Rivers said it well when he stated, ‘The plan must be used by professionals but understood by everyone,'” she said.

Resident Tom Gocze constructed a scale model of the proposed tank and displayed his work at the meeting. The model included the likeness of one of the tallest fuel storage tanks at Mack Point — which range in size from 40- to 50-feet-tall — as well as a rendering of the Angler’s Restaurant building, which would be situated about 400 feet away from the tank were it to be constructed as proposed.

The model, which Gocze said he built based on the company’s own plans on file at the town office, was scaled using a Hot Wheels van, with 1 inch being equal to 5.66 feet.

“We need to know what we’re looking at,” said Gocze, referring to the model that took up a large portion of the table it was displayed on.

Gocze said while he has seen some images from DCP Midstream showing what the tank might look like, he described the visuals as “unnerving.”

“Some of the pictures are deliberately vague,” he said.

Other TBNT supporters, like Suzanne Farley, urged selectmen and other town officials to be wary of the intentions of DCP MIdstream and to consider the proposal beyond the potential for tax relief and job creation.

“What a great setup this is to have one of the richest corporations in the world manipulate our community, as a means to get what it wants,” she said. “Make no mistake: giant corporations, like many businesses, only want one thing… to increase their bottom line.”

Farley also admonished town officials for their lack of a public response to a full-page advertisement that DCP Midstream ran in the Bangor Daily News in November.

“Why wasn’t this town outraged at the insulting insinuation that we’re a bunch of country bumpkins who are easily impressed with expensive full-paged ads?” Farley said. “… Yes, I know there are those that would argue that we, the citizens of Searsport, need those jobs, those delicious bread crumbs that the rich guy tosses to the poor. But, let us not be fooled by false promises that only benefit a few at the expense of many.”

No one in attendance at the Jan. 17 meeting spoke in favor of the tank proposal, but some residents have expressed support for the project at past meetings.

When asked for reactions to images of the scale model that was displayed at the Jan. 17 meeting, DCP Midstream Project Manager and Chief Engineer David Graham said it does not provide an accurate visual of what the tank would look like.

“We’re not building this on a table, we’re building it on the side of a hill,” said Graham.

Graham said the tank would be surrounded by trees, and that the company intends to leave all of the trees in place on the east side of the railroad tracks to serve as visual and sound buffers.

Because of the downward slope in the 24-acre parcel where the tank would be built, Graham said the bottom of the tank would sit 36 feet below Route 1. Route 1, he said, is about 80 feet above sea level.

And Graham said because the tank would be constructed several hundred feet away from Route 1, it would not be as visible to passersby.

“As objects get further away the size decreases exponentially to the human eye,” he said.

Steve Wallace, who conducts visualization studies for DCP, said the process of creating images of what the storage tank might look like when added to the existing landscape involves taking many photographs in various locations. The photos are snapped from several locations that are spelled out in the state Department of Environmental Protection’s visual standards, Wallace said, and the company takes height measurements of both tall and short objects that appear in each photo.

The height of a particular tree, for example, would be used to help create accurate images of what the tank might look like with the help of the company’s computer simulations program.

The scale model that was displayed at the board meeting, said Graham, does not take any of this into account.

“It’s a great visual if you’re trying to make things worse,” he said.

Elliott said though TBNT likely meant well when presenting the model to the public, she echoed Graham’s statements about its inaccuracies.

“It’s OK as a graded science project,” she said.

Company calls attention to ‘silent majority’

Representatives of DCP Midstream said they have received more positive than negative feedback about the proposed project through interactions they’ve had with Searsport residents.

Elloitt said although project opponents have captured a lot of media attention in recent months, there are plenty of locals who are welcoming the proposal. She called them the “silent majority.”

“We’ve been pretty energized,” said Elliott of the time the company has spent in the region so far.

Elloitt said residents from Searsport and neighboring towns have been very interested in learning more about the career opportunities that the project would provide for locals, and DCP Midstream Asset Director Jeff Hurteau, also head of the company’s northeast propane operations, said they are just the people the company wants to employ.

“We intend to hire locally,” he said “It only makes sense to do that.”

A plant supervisor would likely be brought in from another area because Hurteau said experience is necessary for that role, but the company would extensively train locals for the 13 to 15 jobs that would be available at the facility.

Those jobs, Hurteau said, would pay about $70,000 a year, on average, with benefits, which Elloitt said is a far cry from what tank opponents have classified as “gas station jobs.”

And those positions are only the tip of the iceberg, said Elloitt. She said the project would mean the addition of approximately 100 construction jobs during the 18 months it would take to construct the terminal, not to mention the spin-off business that would come to local restaurants and motels in the process. For the plant operations side of things, Hurteau said the company aims to obtain services locally and would opt to use area welding suppliers and mechanics.

Elloitt said the proposed Searsport facility would have an annual operating budget of approximately $3.8 million, and of that amount, roughly $960,000 would be spent on salaries and benefits.

“Every dollar you spend gets turned over three times,” she said. “So if we’re paying people $1 million, that’s $3 million going into the local economy.”

While company representatives appeared eager to speak to the economic benefits the project would bring to Searsport and surrounding towns, that tone changed when the topic returned to the locals who are opposed to the proposal.

Elloitt described the local opposition as “a small group of people” who are “not great in numbers” and are mostly those with large homes on the waterfront who are concerned about the view.

When asked about the protest that TBNT organized at the intersection of Route 1 and Station Avenue in November, which drew about 100 people, the company officials immediately countered with a question: “But how many of those people were from Searsport?”

Elloitt also disputed claims that the proposed LPG operations would have a negative impact on businesses that depend on summer tourism, noting that much of the truck traffic would run during the winter months, as that is the height of the home heating season. She also said while the company has requested permission to run 144 trucks per day in its applications to state and federal agencies, it is unlikely that that many vehicles would ever leave the terminal in one day, even during winter.

“That’d be for the perfect storm,” said Hurteau, referring to a winter a few years back when Maine experienced a shortage in its propane supply.

Residents are more likely to see about 50 additional propane delivery trucks on the road, even during peak season, Elloitt said, adding, “You always permit for bigger.”

Safety first

Hurteau, who said he is a former firefighter himself, addressed some of the safety concerns that TBNT members have raised.

“We can’t simply come in and operate a facility recklessly, because then we’d never build another facility,” he said.

Hurteau said some of the information that has been circulated locally about the safety of LPG has been false, and said training programs the company uses are either in line with or exceed standards set forth by the federal Department of Transportation and the National Propane Gas Association.

New hires for the Searsport terminal would be sent to work with existing plant operators at the company’s marine facility at Chesapeake, Va., for training. He also said the company works with local fire departments and emergency management officials to make sure those charged with keeping a community safe have the knowledge they need to do the job.

“If we have a responsibility, we will fulfill it,” said Hurteau. “Just check with every fire department where we exist now.”

Elloitt provided VillageSoup with a series of correspondence that she said the company has received over the years from officials of the towns where company operations are located.

In a September 2003 letter from Westfield (Mass.) Fire Chief Patrick McGinn, for example, McGinn lauded the company for its working relationship with the public safety community there.

“The company has been very responsive to the needs of the fire department, providing firefighting pumps, appliances and hazardous material training (specific to this site) for firefighters,” McGinn wrote. “The company strictly enforces the truck route restrictions placed on it by the city. Also, members of their management have routinely attended meetings of our local emergency planning committee.”

Searsport Fire Chief Jim Dittmeier — who has publicly expressed support for the project and criticized its opponents, though he has made a point to say he was speaking as a private citizen and not as a public official — said he has had some limited discussions with DCP Midstream so far, all of which were in regards to training opportunities.

“They promised they would train my guys as many times as I felt was necessary,” said Dittmeier. The chief said the company had also offered to provide that training on site, at one of the company’s existing LPG facilities.

Dittmeier said all of the firefighters in his department have had propane-related training, and the chief has also obtained the latest training materials from the Propane Education and Research Council so local firefighters will have additional knowledge about how to deal with propane-related emergencies.

In addition, Dittmeier said there’s a county-wide mutual aid agreement that would provide the town with “all the equipment and manpower” necessary to handle the situation. If the emergency is on a scale that is too great for county resources to manage, Dittmeier said, there are also statewide and state-to-state mutual aid agreements in place to address that potential problem.

But overall, Dittmeier said, he’s not worried.

“None of that would ever be necessary, because it’s impossible for the tank to explode,” said Dittmeier.

Dittmeier said in order for an explosion to occur, a fire would have to be left burning next to the tank long enough for the heat from the flames to melt the exterior walls and cause what is known as a BLEVE or boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion, which occurs when liquid propane or natural gas is subjected to extreme heat.

The smaller, submarine-shaped propane tanks that are often set up near private homes and businesses, said Dittmeier, are a far bigger concern.

“There’s a lot more danger in those 1,000-pounders [propane tanks],” said Dittmeier, noting that the propane-related accidents he is aware of have happened during transport and delivery of the fuel, and have been linked to either faulty equipment or human error.

“I’m not saying there couldn’t be a fire, but there won’t be an explosion,” he said.

Rivers said through the process of meeting with TBNT members, he has also been reviewing the town’s emergency preparedness and safety plan and has updated the plan to meet new state standards.

As a result of large-scale emergencies, like the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina, Rivers said the Federal Emergency Management Agency now has the National Incident Management System in place. Rivers said NIMS, through a network of established federal, state, county and local emergency operations centers, helps emergency personnel at all levels work together to respond to any event that may arise.

“We’re on a scale that we can respond to any problem, whether it’s sending one firefighter and one police officer to a scene right up to getting federal resources and the Coast Guard,” said Rivers.

On a local level, Rivers said each of the existing companies on the Searsport waterfront — including GAC, Irving and Sprague Energy — all have safety and fire plans on file with the town, and all are consistent with the town plan.

“We coordinate our plans with theirs,” said Rivers.

Rivers said he feels local emergency personnel will have all the support necessary to address any issue that may arise, including an emergency at an LPG terminal.

“Can we handle it? Yes,” he said.