SOUTH PORTLAND — In an unexpected turn of events Wednesday night, City Councilors voted to indefinitely postpone a moratorium on the liquefied petroleum gas storage facility proposal at Rigby Yard.
The 4-3 vote removes the proposal from future consideration by the council for at least a year, according to Mayor Tom Blake.
Councilor Brad Fox, who has been the staunchest opponent of the project and an avid supporter of the moratorium, made the motion to take the moratorium off the table indefinitely – then voted against his own motion.
Fox said during the meeting that the moratorium is “the right thing to do. I still don’t think that members of the council and the public have all the information they need to understand how much of a problem this is,” he said.
Fox’s motion to postpone was seconded by Councilor Eben Rose, who has also been a vocal opponent of the proposal.
“I think the council needs more information than they’re getting tonight to discuss the moratorium,” Rose said.
Rose, Cohen, Claude Morgan and Maxine Beecher voted to postpone the issue indefinitely, with Fox, Blake and Patti Smith opposing the motion.
Fox did not return a call asking him to explain his vote Thursday morning, but Blake surmised that Fox’s “intent was to postpone until a specific date,” rather than indefinitely. “I think that’s what he intended to do, and I think the fact that he voted against his own motion (proves) that,” Blake said.
The application by NGL Supply Terminal Co. to construct a $3 million liquid propane storage facility at Rigby Yard will now move forward to be vetted by the Planning Board.
“NGL is encouraged by the Council’s decision tonight and looks forward to presenting our proposal to the Planning Board,” Regional Operations Manager Kevin Fitzgerald said in a statement following the meeting.
The handling of NGL’s proposal by the council has come under fire recently due to Fox’s use of his personal email account to communicate with members of the public, city staff and councilors about how to stop the proposal from moving forward.
Electronic correspondence obtained by The Forecaster through a Freedom of Access Act request revealed more than 125 times when Fox used his personal email account to discuss, deliberate or persuade on matters pertaining to the application.
“To me, it’s not the fact that it was a private email used,” Jeff Selser of Summit Street said Wednesday night. “The problem is, really, that you can’t deliberate outside of the public eye.”
When a councilor airs his opinion or attempts to influence decisions, “that counts as transacting city business,” Selser said. “Mr. Fox, you would have known that if you went to the (Freedom of Access Act) training session the other night.”
Selser was referring to a Nov. 30 workshop hosted by the city about right-to-know law that Fox opted not to attend.
“What it does is undermine our confidence … we don’t want to think you’re doing something in secret,” Selser said.
Resident Peter Stocks agreed, saying, “I am extremely bothered by what’s happening here,” he said.
“We have one or two city councilors that seem to be attempting to enact major land use legislation … through the banning of propane and the commercial distribution of it,” Stocks said.
He referred to action taken earlier this week by NGL Supply Terminal Co. as “a shot across the bow.”
On Monday, NGL, through the Portland-based law firm Pierce Atwood, submitted a far-reaching Freedom of Access Act request to survey “all public records that are in possession, custody or control of the city, including any city official, elected official, employee, agent, or representative, wherever the materials are located, relating in any way to NGL’s proposal to relocate a terminal in Rigby Yard.”
The request includes communication “in whatever documentary form,” electronic or otherwise.
In a press release to media outlets following the FOAA request, NGL representatives said, “We are increasingly concerned that Councilor Fox, and potentially other councilors, are actively engaged in subverting an open and transparent Planning Board review process before that process has even begun.”
NGL also accused Fox of “pursuing fire code ordinance amendments designed exclusively to prohibit the lawful development of our proposed facility,” according to the press release.
“Because these amendments appear so narrowly drawn as to target our project exclusively, we will actively monitor council deliberations and, should the council enact these amendments as written, reserve the right to pursue all means of redress, including legal action,” reads the release.
Earlier this week, Councilor Morgan said the request is a “polite, perhaps even kind way in which NGL is saying they’re being mistreated here, that their due process is being abused.”
“This isn’t playacting anymore,” Morgan said. “You don’t get a do-over on something like this. The unannounced public meetings, the furtive emails, this all has a huge cost all of the sudden.”
At Wednesday’s council meeting, both Morgan and Cohen cited due process as a reason not to support a moratorium.
“It’s all about process with me,” Cohen said. “We are not the Planning Board.”
Morgan told councilors, “I’m very disturbed when the city deprives someone of a fair process.”
“This is a project that is cleaner than tar sands, infinitely cleaner,” he said. “To me it is an acceptable risk. Rigby Yard is in fact a depot already; we’re talking about modifying and we even have an opportunity to make it safer.”
Comments from residents were divided – some referenced the need to allow NGL a fair vetting process from the Planning Board, while others compared the risk of a catastrophic accident to the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear disasters.
Devin Deane, of Thirlmere Avenue, who was in favor of a moratorium, said the purpose of one is “not to kill this project.” Rather, “it says press pause.”
Deane asked the councilors to pay attention to the “will of the people.”
“Dozens and dozens of the folks like me, living next to this (Rigby Yard), asking you, please, we have a problem. We don’t know the solution, we we know the way to a solution and that’s a moratorium.”
Sue Henderson, of E Street, said the issue isn’t about whether propane is good or bad, or whether due process is good or bad. “Propane is good, due process is good,” she said. “The issue is are we going to blow up our city? And I don’t know the answer to that.”
“Our world … has really changed what we know about harm,” she said. Things that were thought to be impossible have gone wrong; “think about Chernobyl,” she said. “Look at the Twin Towers falling down. Bad, bad stuff happens. We are on a flight path. These (tank) farms are on a flight path.”
At a Nov. 9 City Council workshop, former fire chief Kevin Guimond addressed the threat of catastrophic explosion. While no one can guarantee that one won’t happen, it is highly unlikely, he said.
“The big, catastrophic failures that people have been talking about … a lot of them are BLEVEs.” And BLEVEs – “boiling liquid expanding vapor explosions” – Guimond said at the workshop, can be controlled, thanks to technology and mitigating infrastructure.
Selser, who opposed the moratorium at Wednesday’s meeting, not only criticized the furtive deliberative process, but remarked on the polarization wrought by the proposal.
“What we’re trying to figure out is, what is the reasonable risk here?” he said. “More people are killed by airplanes falling from the sky, killing someone on the ground, than by propane explosions, annually.”
The City Council voted to postpone the moratorium for a proposed liquified petroleum gas storage facility at Rigby Yard Monday night, effectively removing it from further council deliberation.