Brunswick train barn to get 'by-the-book' DEP study

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BRUNSWICK — The Maine Department of Environmental Protection intends to place plans for an Amtrak train layover facility under a microscope.

But an official of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority said the agency is confident the $12.7 million project can stand the scrutiny.

DEP spokeswoman Jessamine Logan said the department is reacting to intense public interest in the project and information provided to it by concerned residents near the proposed construction site. 

The department is also trying to be as open and transparent as possible, she said, especially after losing one round of litigation over its handling of a storm-water permit for the facility. 

“We know this project is going to receive extra scrutiny, so we are going to do everything by the book and by the regulations,” Logan said. 

Last week, a storm-water permit application filed by the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority was rejected by the DEP, which cited several deficiencies with the proposal. 

At the same time, DEP Commissioner Patricia Aho sent a six-page letter to NNEPRA, demanding answers to 21 questions about the possible environmental impact of the project. 

But in an email sent only hours after receiving the rejection notice, Stephen Bushey, of NNEPRA’s South Portland-based engineering firm, Fay, Spofford and Thorndike, said the problems raised by DEP were minor and could have been easily clarified without rejecting the application entirely.

In the rejection notice, DEP Project Manager Bill Bullard listed five areas where NNEPRA did not provide necessary graphs, had mislabeled symbols on a map legend, or had not provided information required by the department. 

The problems cited by DEP were largely due to improper formatting, printing issues, or unclear drawings, rather than substantive gaps in the application, Bushey said.

In two cases, tables DEP said were absent from the application were actually included, just not in the right place, Bushey pointed out. 

More than once in his email, he said the types of problems cited as deficiencies by the department would ordinarily have been cleared up by communication with DEP staff.

Referencing the DEP’s criticism of a missing dewatering plan, Bushey responded that his firm “would normally consider this type of comment as routine to the staff review and find it surprising that it is considered significant enough to consider an application deficient or incomplete.”

All of the deficiencies cited by DEP could have been identified at a presubmission meeting, but one was not held “as recommended by the department,” he said. 

NNEPRA plans to build the 60,000-square-foot train barn between Stanhope Street and Church Road, to shelter Downeaster passenger trains overnight. 

In an interview Tuesday, Logan confirmed that DEP might ordinarily work with applicants to smooth out minor editorial or formatting issues, but intends to strictly follow the regulations when it comes to reviewing applications for the layover facility. 

The fact that the required dewatering plan for the construction of a storm-water management system was missing, however, was a serious problem for the department, Logan said. 

A presubmission meeting was not recommended because the department believed it was reviewing the same application it approved last year, Logan said. 

That permit was thrown out in July, after a Cumberland County Superior Court judge ruled that the department did not properly notify abutters about the application

The suit was brought against DEP and NNEPRA by the Brunswick West Neighborhood Coalition, a group of residents from nearby Bouchard Drive who have opposed the project since it was proposed more than two years ago. 

According to Logan, the loss of the court case, plus new information about the site from local residents, prompted DEP to closely examine the application to make sure it had all the required materials. 

Issues brought to the department’s attention by abutters to the project include the presence of drinking water wells near the property and other environmental concerns, Logan said. 

A presubmission meeting with NNEPRA will probably be scheduled within the next week, Logan said, and the session will likely involve a conversation regarding the list of questions sent to the agency by Aho.

Since the issue is now being handled directly by the the commissioner’s office with involvement of staff from multiple DEP bureaus, the storm-water permit application will not be considered separately from the department’s other concerns, Logan said. 

“The questions that the commissioner raised are not insurmountable, but the answers need to be addressed,” she said. 

In an interview Wednesday, NNEPRA Executive Director Patricia Quinn said the agency recognizes the strong public interest in the project and intends to make every effort to ensure it receives a proper review. 

Added scrutiny from DEP will not derail the project, she said. 

“At this point we haven’t identified anything that can’t be identified or addressed or hasn’t already been addressed,” Quinn said. 

“We are very concerned about the integrity of the project and we want to work in partnership with the DEP,” she added. “Together I think we can work through all the points that have been raised and I don’t see that as any reason it would be an obstruction to constructing the facility.”

Peter L. McGuire can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or Follow him on Twitter @mcguiremidcoast.