Editorial: South Portland propane proposal deserves a fair hearing

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South Portland took a step in the right direction last week when the City Council failed to enact a moratorium on construction of storage and distribution facilities for liquefied petroleum gas.

Or rather, when the council failed to throw another unnecessary hurdle in front of NGL Terminal Supply Co., which has the only propane depot proposal pending in the city, at Rigby Rail Yard.

There’s no question NGL’s proposal isn’t popular with some South Portland residents – or with a majority of councilors, who voted 4-3 for the moratorium, but failed to achieve the super majority necessary to enact the freeze.

Arguments against the depot aren’t frivolous; residents, some of whom live less than 1,000 feet from the rail yard site, have genuine concerns about the safety of the project. Their concerns need to be discussed, and the project needs to be vetted.

But these discussions must be in the context of NGL’s proposal and track record, in a process that is fair to everyone. It has been a year since NGL introduced its plan, which would keep propane flowing to about 50,000 customers in northern New England, and too little of what has transpired has been predictable or transparent.

The company has operated without any problems for decades on Commercial Street in Portland, and the rail cars full of propane it now handles come via Rigby Yard – and comply with South Portland’s existing rules and regulations.

The city code enforcement officer a year ago gave the project her stamp of approval. Then the Planning Department signed off. Then, after all but being accused by project opponents and some city councilors of dereliction of duty, the code officer reversed her decision. Councilors further inserted themselves into the discussion by proposing the moratorium, which the Planning Board overwhelmingly refused to endorse. Which led to last week’s failed City Council vote.

Along the way, Councilor Brad Fox, an opponent of the proposal, has shown an alarming tendency to try to deliberate privately about the proposal via email, and has ignored the city’s policy against using personal email to discuss city business. His behavior has been defended by Councilor Eben Rose, another NGL foe.

NGL, meanwhile, has done things by the book and jumped through every hoop the city has thrown in its path. The company drastically reduced the scope of its plan, and said it would appeal the code officer’s abrupt change of heart.

But how many hoops are too many? Some councilors now hope to change the city’s fire code as a way to block NGL, even though past and present fire chiefs have said the city’s existing codes and infrastructure provide sufficient safeguards.

We’re not ready to either support or oppose NGL’s proposal. But we do think the city owes the company a fair hearing. Changing the playing field in the middle of the game is wrong, as is the council inserting itself in the planning process. The city’s residents deserve the benefit of an open, honest and transparent discussion, and so does NGL.