After day-long hearing, Brunswick train barn proposal up to DEP

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BRUNSWICK — Advocates and opponents of a proposed railroad maintenance and layover facility presented arguments to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection Wednesday on a storm water management permit sought by the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority.

The nearly 12-hour public hearing at the Brunswick Golf Club was the latest chapter in a permit approval process that has spanned almost three years. NNEPRA submitted its most recent permit application last October, after a previous application was returned by the DEP in August as incomplete.

In November, DEP Commissioner Patricia Aho called for a public hearing on the application, citing the “unique circumstances of this case and the substantial public input.”

The permit would allow NNEPRA to construct the facility on a former rail yard now bordered by homes in west Brunswick. The building would provide overnight storage of Downeaster passenger trains, and help Amtrak increase the number of trips to Brunswick.

It has drawn criticism from neighbors who question how runoff from the more-than 50,000-square-foot layover building would be effectively handled to prevent flooding and pollution to the local aquifer and a stream at the far eastern end of the property.

The hearing started with NNEPRA, a public transportation authority created by the state Legislature, presenting witnesses who testified to the accuracy and completeness of the permit’s technical information.  

Stephen Bushey, senior engineer at Massachusetts-based Fay, Spofford & Thorndike, presented details for a storm water drainage system his firm designed for the project site.

Bushey described a “closed-range system,” where runoff from the roof and walls would be caught in a gravel “drip strip” lining the perimeter of the building, which would then funnel water through a pipe to a lined, wet pond in the eastern portion of the property.

He said any water that seeped further under the pipe would be caught by an underground system, ensuring minimal groundwater infiltration. The wet pond system is the “most able as a single drainage management plan to meet (environmental) standards,” he said.

Stephen Marcotte, a geologist from the environmental engineering firm CES, said his firm tested five wells on the site for pollutants associated with coal ash and petroleum, both of which have been historically present there. 

He said although coal ash fill still exists on the property, there was “no evidence of significant groundwater impacts associated with historic use of the site.”  

After the scientists’ testimony, attorney John Shumadine of Plumb Murray & Plumb, counsel to the Brunswick West Neighborhood Association, expressed concerns over the proposed system in cross-examination.  

He argued that because there is no plan for groundwater monitoring during construction, workers would not know if disturbed coal ash, which contains toxic heavy metals, would be released into the surrounding environment.

Shumadine also argued that certain environmental variables used in NNEPRA’s calculations for storm water management did not match the actual composition of the site.

Later in the afternoon, opponents presented their own witnesses to expose what they see as significant problems in NNEPRA’s application.  

Rick Pershken, a geologist and water systems operator who worked for five years at the Soil Conservation Service, argued that the soil types NNEPRA’s engineers used in runoff equations were not intended to be used at this scale.

“I believe a soil survey should be redone by a certified soil scientist in the state of Maine,” he said. “In conclusion, I think this application is still incomplete.”

Bushey, in response, said he wouldn’t want to change the proposed system. “I am confident in the system we designed,” he said.

Wednesday’s meeting was the first public hearing ever held specifically for a storm water management application. When asked why he thought Aho had called the hearing for this project specifically, Shumadine said the project is somewhat of an “anomaly.”

Because the Federal Railroad Administration oversees Amtrak’s programs, including the Downeaster, there are certain federal statutes that preempt specific local and state standards from applying. “It doesn’t fall within site location, but it’s still a big project,” Shumadine said.

DEP spokesman David Madore said the agency received a lot of “varied” information from the public after NNEPRA filed its application in October. The format of the hearing would allow all parties to fully address the pertinent information, he said.

The crowd swelled to more than 100 people for the night session of the hearing, when members of the public were given the opportunity to testify.

Of the 30 people who testified, the mix of supporters and opponents was fairly even: 14 people spoke in favor, and 16 against.  

“The (layover facility) is critical for our region,” Margot Knight of Page Street said.  “More frequent (train) service is in high demand, and we need the layover facility in order to supply it.”

But project opponents argued that critical aspects of the project are still unclear in NNEPRA’s latest application.

“We all know the devil’s in the details,” said Sandra Buckles, who lives near the proposed development. “(NNEPRA) appears to cut corners at every step of the process. … That’s not the type of neighbor I want, and I urge (the DEP) to reject this proposal.”

Madore said he could not say exactly when the DEP would issue a ruling. “For now, the clock’s stopped,” he said.

That clock will start ticking again when the parties submit their final briefs to the DEP, no later than April 24. After that, it usually takes around 43 days for DEP staff to review all the information and deliver a decision, Madore said.

Walter Wuthmann can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or Follow him on Twitter: @wwuthmann.

Sidebar Elements

Stephen Bushey, senior engineer at the Massachusetts-based Fay, Spofford & Thorndike engineering firm, explains the storm water drainage system for a proposed Amtrak train layover facility at a Maine Department of Environmental Protection hearing Wednesday in Brunswick.

Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority representatives, foreground, and representatives of the Brunswick West Neighborhood Coalition are joined by attorney Bruce Sleeper, representing TrainRiders Northeast, as Bushey makes his presentation on Wednesday.

More than 100 people packed a room at the Brunswick Golf Club for the evening session of Wednesday’s DEP hearing on a storm water permit sought by NNEPRA for a proposed Amtrak train layover facility.

Brunswick/Harpswell reporter for The Forecaster. Bowdoin College grad, San Francisco Bay Area native. Follow for municipal, school, community, and environmental news from the Midcoast.