Maine DEP chief questions plan for Downeaster train barn in Brunswick

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BRUNSWICK — The commissioner of Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection is demanding that the agency overseeing Downeaster passenger rail service explain how it will address several potential problems related to a train layover facility planned near a west Brunswick neighborhood.

A storm water permit application submitted by the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority earlier this month was also rejected by the DEP – and could delay the project – after the department found important information was either missing or out of place.

In a six-page letter to NNEPRA on Aug. 26, DEP Commissioner Patricia Aho listed 21 items of concern about how the agency intends to manage the environmental and public health impacts of the layover project.

Aho also insisted that all further correspondence about the project be sent directly to her office to “ensure efficiencies in communications with NNEPRA and (to) facilitate the coordinated review efforts necessary by department staff.”

In a written statement, DEP spokeswoman Jessamine Logan said Aho’s letter is a response to a July 30 meeting between NNEPRA and department staff, which raised questions about the environmental impact of the project.

“The storm-water management permit is just one part of the project,” Logan said in an email Thursday morning.

Typically, applicants for large projects like the layover facility will request a preliminary meeting with the department, to review all the permits and questions prior to submitting any type of application, Logan added.

“That meeting did not happen in this instance, which is why we are asking for all of these questions now,” she said.

NNEPRA Executive Director Patricia Quinn on Wednesday suggested there is nothing out of the ordinary about Aho’s letter.

She said it is part of the overall process of properly permitting and constructing the facility. The letter is largely a summary of conversations her staff have already had with DEP, Quinn said.

“I don’t think there’s any fatal flaws at this point in time,” Quinn said. “It’s just a matter of looking at existing conditions and looking at the project, and making sure as we go through this, that everything is addressed adequately.”

According to Quinn, the engineering firm hired by NNEPRA asked DEP if a pre-submission meeting was warranted, but was told it was not necessary.

Local opponents of the project cheered the DEP’s approach to the project, which has been fought by some Brunswick residents since it was proposed three years ago.

The project has been vigorously opposed by a group of residents who live in a neighborhood near the proposed site, has been criticized by legislators, and even questioned by Gov. Paul LePage.

“We’re extremely happy with what’s going on and we’re confident that we’ll get a good result from it,” said Bob Morrison, president of the Brunswick West Neighborhood Coalition, a group of Bouchard Drive residents, who have claimed that noise, air pollution and vibration from the facility will pose risks to their health and safety.

Aho’s letter raised questions about NNEPRA’s plan to deal with toxic soil run-off; storage and disposal of oil, lubricants and solid waste, and possible contamination of nearby wells.

Aho also directed NNEPRA to conduct an additional air quality analysis for nitrogen dioxide levels and to comply with the department’s noise limit standards, with an “emphasis on controlling night-time noise levels.”

The commissioner further asked NNEPRA to outline what steps it will take to address possible exposure to contaminated soil during construction. That issue was also raised by DEP in 2011, when NNEPRA applied for a liability waiver for the project; NNEPRA apparently never responded.

Quinn said she is not in a position to respond to questions about specific issues raised by Aho, but said NNEPRA is committed to meeting all the necessary environmental standards.

“We fully agree with and support the DEP’s position that we don’t want to create a problem or make anything unsafe,” Quinn said. “It’s just a matter of making sure that it is constructed in a way that takes all the factors and conditions into consideration.”

Storm water permit

But the DEP’s rejection of the storm water permit was unexpected and disappointing, Quinn admitted.

In an application deficiency notice, DEP Project Manager Bill Bullard reported several design items were missing from the application, including a table for its water quality treatment plan, calculations for sizing a storage pond, and the location of erosion control practices.

NNEPRA will need a pre-submission hearing before it reapplies for a new permit, Bullard said.

Quinn, however, said the items brought up by DEP were mainly “formatting” errors involving how the information was provided.

The firm that submitted the proposal led her to believe that many of the issues can be cleared up through conversations with DEP staff, Quinn said.

“It was not an incomplete application at all,” she said.

The rejection will most likely delay planned construction of the building, which NNEPRA has been anxious to build since it received a “finding of no significant environmental impact” from the Federal Railway Authority in June.

Morrison, of the neighborhood coalition, said the requirements outlined in the letter could derail the project completely.

“It lays out the types of things NNEPRA will have to do in order to satisfy the state that this facility can be constructed,” Morrison said. “We just don’t think they can meet those requirements.”

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