BRUNSWICK — The Maine Department of Environmental Protection has postponed a community meeting on a storm-water permit for a proposed Amtrak train layover facility, opting instead to hold a formal public hearing on the project.
DEP Commissioner Patricia Aho on Nov. 6 said hearing requests from two Brunswick residents included information about the project’s impact on groundwater that is “technical in nature and would benefit from further evaluation” that would not be “effectively conducted” in a community forum.
“Further, the ability to review detailed pre-filed testimony and the pre-filed responses would ensure that the Department has a complete understanding of the technical information,” Aho said, emphasizing the “unique circumstances” and “substantial public input” of the project.
As a result, the department postponed the Nov. 13 meeting, which will instead be held in conjunction with the formal hearing. A date for the hearing has not been set.
The Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, which runs the Amtrak Downeaster service, has tried to get the 60,000-square-foot, $12.7 million project off the ground for almost three years.
It has faced fierce resistance, particularly from residents in a neighborhood near the proposed site, a former freight yard between Church Road and Stanwood Street.
NNEPRA says it needs the facility as part of a plan to increase the number of Downeaster passenger trains running daily between Brunswick and Boston, to prevent trains from idling outdoors on the tracks, and to expand further rail service in Maine.
Opponents say the project is ill-conceived and could have serious health and environmental impacts on Brunswick. Some have argued that low ridership numbers further make the project unnecessary.
“This is extremely good news for us,” Robert Morrison, the president of Brunswick Neighborhood West Coalition, said in reaction to the DEP’s decision. “It means the department is seriously looking at the project.”
BWNC claims to represent residents of Bouchard Drive, who have been campaigning against the project since it was proposed in 2011. Charles Wallace, who owns property near the site, also requested the hearing.
Although the project’s possible impact on groundwater is a key concern, Morrison said his group expects to also highlight related issues, including pollution runoff, in its formal testimony to the department.
BWNC also hopes to point out what it considers to be a flawed and incomplete application NNEPRA submitted to the DEP, he added.
Unlike the previously planned public meeting, hearings involve testimony delivered under oath, rather than informal citizen feedback.
After review, department staff determined a public hearing was the most appropriate way to go through the large amounts of information received about the project, DEP spokesman Karl Wilkins said.
“I don’t think the department’s decision to hold a public hearing should be interpreted as anything other than an opportunity to review the all the information that has been provided and make the best decision that it can on the application,” Wilkins said.
Because the department has to take time to organize the hearing, it will likely not make a decision on the permit by a Dec. 17 deadline, he added.
Patricia Quinn, NNEPRA executive director, said it is within the DEP’s purview to hold the hearing, and that her team stands behind its work.
“I know that our engineers, who are very experienced and very reputable, believe that the storm-water plan they have submitted meets all the requirements,” Quinn said. “We have a really good team, and they are comfortable and confident with what they have put forth.”
Quinn said some of the concerns raised by Morrison, Wallace, and others are unrelated to the storm-water permit, and said she believes the hearing will focus specifically on her agency’s application.
She was unsure what NNEPRA would need to do to get ready for the hearing, but stated that it will “take more time and taxpayer dollars to prepare.”
Securing a storm-water permit has been a hurdle for NNEPRA.
A permit approved by DEP last year was thrown out in June by a Superior Court judge, who sided with BWNC in a lawsuit that argued NNEPRA had not adequately informed abutters about the permit application.
On its second go-around with the permit, DEP has been much more careful.
It initially rejected NNEPRA’s re-application and requested additional information about the possible environmental impacts of the facility, as well as bringing the entire project under Aho’s oversight.
So far, the department has determined that the storm-water permit is the only state environmental license NNEPRA needs before it can start construction of the layover station.