Opponents of a proposal to construct a 22.7-million-gallon, liquefied petroleum gas storage tank at Mack Point accused the company of paying residents to influence the results of the upcoming moratorium vote and presenting “fraudulent” information.

More than 200 people packed into Union Hall Jan. 26 to hear a presentation from representatives of DCP Midstream, the Colorado company that has proposed building the LPG facility alongside existing port operations on the Searsport waterfront.

The meeting was scheduled to begin at 5:30 p.m., but crowds holding signs — some indicating support for the project, others in opposition — had gathered outside the building by 5 p.m., and at that time locals were already pressed to find a parking space.

Janet Whalen of Searsport stood outside the entrance of Union Hall holding a sign with the image of a large tank looming over a silhouette of Searsport reading, “No thanks,” noting she wanted to come out and show that she is among the locals who feel the project isn’t right for the town.

Over on the Reservoir Street side of the building, another group held signs that read, “Our kids need jobs.”

Chris Tucker of Winterport was one of the people showing support for the project prior to the start of the meeting.

“We oppose the moratorium,” said Tucker. “These are all unemployed construction workers who have been looking for work.”

Meet and greet

As the meeting got started, locals were introduced to several of the company’s officers: President Bill Waldheim, Chief Operating Officer Chris Lewis, Project Manager David Graham, Environmental Specialist Becky Malloy, Jeff Hurteau (who heads up the company’s propane operations) and company spokeswoman Roz Elliott.

Elliott said the intention of the meeting was to offer an overview of the company’s plans, but more importantly, it was aimed at answering questions from the public.

“We really want to get those questions out,” she said.

Waldhiem spoke briefly about when then-Gov. John Baldacci contacted him looking for help when the state experienced a shortage of propane during the winter of 2007. He said at the time, businesses were either slowing down or shutting down and furloughing employees while schools were struggling to stay open. Waldheim said at the time, Baldacci had expressed particular concern for the state’s elderly and disabled.

In response, Waldheim said, the company re-routed propane that was to be delivered to other parts of the country up to Maine, a move that he said solved a problem that was in part caused because the state depends largely on rail to transport the propane supply.

“Actually it was in that situation that the idea of [constructing a facility in] Searsport was born,” he said.

Lewis talked about the company’s interest in hiring local people, and introduced the audience to two men who work at the company’s Auburn facility. Lewis also introduced Tucker, who explained the nature of an agreement that was struck between the company and the Maine State Building Construction Council, in regards to the proposed facility in Searsport.

Tucker said the agreement stemmed from the ongoing struggle of both unionized and non-unionized construction workers to find good jobs. Through the agreement, Tucker said, the company would hire local workers and train youths who want to work in construction fields.

“We want to promote good construction jobs with good, livable wages,” Tucker said. “… There are a lot of $8-an-hour workers who are struggling to make ends meet.”

And Lewis reminded the audience of the increased business the construction phase would bring to local hotels, restaurants and grocery stores.

“There is a domino effect,” Lewis said.

Malloy spoke to the application process that the company has undergone with state and federal agencies, as the town’s own ordinance states those processes must be complete before a potential developer can submit a formal building application to the Searsport Planning Board. She described the permitting requirements in Maine as like those of other states, only “on steroids.”

“I’ve never seen a process like what you guys have here in Maine,” she said.

Malloy said once the company obtains permission from the Army Corps of Engineers to build, the next stop will be the local planning board.

Company representatives also explained that the plans include one large tank because the available land does not allow space for two smaller, less visible tanks, and stressed the company’s commitment to safety and training for its employees.

Elliott said the company is also committed to helping their host communities meet collective needs. In Michigan, for example, employees there agreed the community needed a new van to transport cancer patients to an area treatment center, so the company bought one. DCP Midstream also gave aid to victims of Hurricane Irene in Vermont and New York, according to company officials.

“We didn’t wait for someone to come to us; we went right to the Red Cross to offer our support,” said Elliott.

Helicopters, trucks and tank life

Resident Maggie Morrison Leigh asked company representatives if they considered any other locations for their proposal besides Searsport.

“We looked at Bucksport, here, and in Portland,” said Graham. “We looked at a lot of different places.”

Graham said Searsport was chosen because of its modern pier and the port’s access to rail and highway.

“Searsport’s an energy port,” he said. “It’s been that way for decades.”

Morrison Leigh said she lives on Steamboat Avenue, and asked the company representatives how she and her neighbors would evacuate the area if there were a major accident that caused Route 1 to be shut down.

“How would we get out? You might want to consider providing a helicopter so we can have help getting off our streets,” said Morrison Leigh.

Elliott said if that were to occur, the company would turn to the town’s own emergency service departments and work with those officials to implement the local emergency plan.

Searsport Emergency Management Director Almon “Bud” Rivers assured locals that the town has the resources it needs to manage a large-scale emergency, thanks to mutual aid agreements and plans outlined in the National Emergency Management System. Rivers said in addition, the company will be required to submit its own emergency plan, and it must be integrated with the local one.

Others in the crowd asked about the amount of truck traffic that would be added to the already-busy Route 1 corridor if the LPG terminal were to be built as proposed.

Graham said the company expects to run an additional 9,000 trucks on Route 1 annually, a figure that he described as negligible when compared to the estimated 300,000 trucks that already pass over Route 1 each year. The impact of that additional traffic from DCP, Graham continued, will be even smaller when looked at in the context of total vehicle traffic, because the Maine Department of Transportation estimates 3.8 million vehicles pass through Searsport annually.

“It’s not even half of a percent,” said Graham.

Searsport resident Charlene Knox Farris asked about the life expectancy of the proposed storage tank, and sought assurance from company officials that the town would not be stuck with it if and when the company ceases use of it.

“Do you guarantee the future generations of this town that you’ll tear it down?” she said.

Hurteau said it would “last a very, very long time” because of the way the tank is constructed and the materials stored in it. The inside of the tank is rust resistant, he said, and the exterior is coated with a special paint and is insulated to keep it waterproof. It would also be subject to regular safety inspections.

“This town will last longer than this tank,” said Farris. “Your company will not be here forever. Can you promise that will be taken down?”

Waldheim said generally, the life of a tank is about 40 years, but because the company takes care of its equipment, there are some still in use today that are more than 40 years old.

That comment triggered a series of groans from the audience, and residents pressed Waldheim for a more definitive answer. Waldheim then added that the company has a remediation program in place in the event that one of their facilities is no longer needed.

“We remediate those areas back to the way they were,” he said.

Factual or fraudulent?

Tensions continued to rise as the meeting headed into its second hour, and continued building right up until 8:30 p.m., when company officials wrapped up the meeting 90 minutes after its scheduled end time.

One woman asked for a show of hands to indicate how many people in the room were from Searsport, how many were retired and how many were concerned about jobs. Once that exercise was over, the woman said the company would bring at least a dozen permanent jobs to town.

“Twelve jobs are better than no jobs,” she said, a comment that triggered groans from some in the audience.

Resident Marietta Ramsdell asked what kind of jobs would be offered at the plant, and what qualifications people would need to land one of them.

Hurteau said there are three levels of certification, and the minimum requirement for an entry-level position is a high school diploma.

Elliott said the company is planning a job fair sometime in February and details on the time and location are expected to be publicized soon.

Searsport Resident Suzanne Farley asked how many entry-level positions would be needed, but that question went unanswered.

The meeting grew more tense as time went on, and when company officials presented enlarged, digitally enhanced images showing what the tank might look like from various points around town, resident Peter Taber took issue with their accuracy, particularly with the one that appeared late last year in a full-page advertisement in the Bangor Daily News that showed the proposed tank at the same width as the tanks that already exist at Mack Point. The project plans, Taber noted, show the proposed tank would be nearly twice as wide as the existing tanks on the waterfront.

“It’s an optical illusion,” said Taber, who jumped to his feet and engaged in a one-on-one argument with Graham. “That’s 50 percent wider but it comes out narrower… This is a fraudulent picture!”

As Taber spoke, some applauded, while others uttered statements indicating annoyance with the outburst.

Steve Wallace, who conducted the visualization studies for DCP Midstream, said the images were created by taking photographs from specific points in town that were dictated by the state Department of Environmental Protection visual impact assessment standards. He also said the proposed tank is set further back than the existing tanks on the water and that’s why it appears to be the same width in the images.

Resident A.J. Koch said he felt the company is doing what it should to avoid harmful impacts to the environment through the state and federal permitting processes.

“The federal government wouldn’t be giving permits if that weren’t the case,” he said.

Local business owners asked about how the 12 to 15 permanent jobs the company is promising will measure up to the many jobs that could be lost if the presence of the tank drives businesses like Anglers Restaurant and Bluejacket Ship Crafters out of town.

“I can’t tell you if your tourism business is going to go out,” said Waldheim.

A man in the back of the room commented that if a tank on the water is enough to close their businesses, then “maybe you don’t have enough to offer.”

Others asked DCP Midstream officials if they planned to have an economic impact study done to see how the project might impact the area. Elliott said the company has enlisted Charlie Colgan at the University of Southern Maine to conduct such a study, and the results are expected back soon.

“If the economic impact study comes back negatively, would you abandon the project?” asked Bob Shaw of Belfast.

After some back and forth between the audience, Waldheim and Graham, Elliott said the company “would address it with the town.”

Others in the audience, like residents David Italiaander and Harlan McLaughlin, asked the company why they were working locally to influence an upcoming town meeting vote, where residents will be asked if they want to enact a six-month moratorium on all LPG-related projects.

“Why are you canvassing? You’re getting involved in a local issue,” said Italiaander, referring to a circulating rumor that the company is paying locals $100 per day to approach their neighbors and encourage them to vote against the moratorium.

Prior to the Jan. 26 forum, VillageSoup heard a variation of that rumor that suggested the company was paying people that amount of money in order to secure that individual’s vote against the moratorium. Asked about that rumor in a telephone interview Jan. 25, company officials denied that is the case.

[Editor’s note: This updated version of the story clarifies which specific rumor DCP officials were addressing, in response to a question from VillageSoup.]

Waldheim said the company is going around speaking to locals because officials are “interested in the sentiments of the community,” but a man in the audience countered, “But you say to vote no!”

McLaughlin referred to the folks who are rumored to be working for the company as the “$100 a day prostitutes” and called on Elliott to stand by a statement he said he heard her make on a recent interviewed at aired on WVOM.

“You said the only people who are opposed to the tank are summer people who are worried about the view. Do you still stand behind that?” he said to Elliott.

Elliott said her statement was “taken out of context” and that she meant the vote is about Searsport people, not those who come to stay in town part time from other towns and states.

“I apologize if I offended anyone,” she said. “… When it comes to the moratorium, yes we do want people to vote no. You know why? Because we want to build this project.”

As the meeting drew to a close, Searsport resident and former selectman Jack Merrithew asked a question that did not trigger a response from company officials but drew applause from the audience.

“Tell me in sincerity, how many of you will be willing to uproot, come to Searsport, build a house on Station Avenue and live in the shadow of this facility?” he said.

“Houses will be cheap,” added McLaughlin.