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Developers Ditch Plans for 14-Story Propane Tank in Searsport
04/02/2013   Reported By: Jay Field

A Denver-based gas company has withdrawn its application to build a 14-story liquid propane storage tank at Mack Point in Searsport. DCP Midstream's decision comes after several votes last week by the Searsport Planning Board put the project's ultimate approval in doubt. As Jay Field reports, the proposal to build the tank spawned intense grassroots opposition by neighboring towns and other regional interests worried about the potential impact on traffic, public safety, tourism and the environment.

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DCP finalized its decision Tuesday morning and began reaching out to supporters in Searsport to let them know. Calls to the news media followed.

Roz Elliot, DCP's spokesperson, says the company realized that local approval of its application was looking unlikely.
"We've received federal and state requetory approvals and they've certainly reviewed this thoroughly. And the planning board has a contrary view, compared to them, which is surprising and disappointing. So we did not think it was necessary to continue on," Elliot says.

The first signs of trouble emerged last week, as the Searsport Planning Board began final deliberations on the project. Bruce Probert is the board's chariman.

"We already had one rather large hurdle there - that they had industrial operations planned for a commerical zone where they were not permitted," he says.

Other hurdles came when Probert and his fellow board members voted unanimously that the proposed tank site was too small, and that the project couldn't meet the town's safety or noise requirements. The company's decision to withdraw its application is a clear victory for Thanks But No Tank, the group that channeled opposition to the project from a diverse array of interests across the Pen Bay region.

"The strength of the grassroots response was phenomenal," says attorney Steve Hinchman, who represented the Thanks But No Tank group before the Searsport Planning Board. Group members used a mixture of old-fashioned, 60s-style activism and 21st-century, social media disruption to call attention to the many concerns raised by the project.

They included the potential damage to tourism on the midcoast, a possible decline in home values near the site, increased truck traffic on Route 1, and the potential threats to public safety and the environment in the event of a propane leak or blast.

"Those people were very committed. They were very passionate. They were smart. They went out and did their homework and they got really good facts," Hinchman says. "They made my job, as their attorney, easy."

But while Thanks But No Tank may be celebrating, not everyone is happy about the outcome in Searsport. Local supporters of the project, including people who work in the construction trades, believed it would bring an economic boost in a town where jobs are scarce and prosperity is elusive.

In the propane industry, meantime, officials say the project's demise doesn't change one basic fact: "We need, today, more storage in Maine, and in New England overall, for propane," says Joe Rose, who heads the Propane Gas Associaton of New England.

Rose says the pipeline system that brings propane to the Northeast ends outside Albany, New York, a long way from Maine. Problems arise when there's a malfunction on the pipeline, or a bad winter storm disrupts propane shipments by train.

Rose says the average retail propane seller only has two to three days of storage capacity on their site. "And that's mostly because they, like DCP, have real difficulty getting storage permission from local governments."

But opponents of the Searsport tank say this isn't as big a problem as Rose makes it out to be. Hydraulic fracturing in the Utica and Marcellus shale gas fields, they argue, has flooded Maine with a cheap, reliable supply of propane. And that has prompted some to question whether DCP might come back with a plan to build a propane export facility in Maine.


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