South Portland tank farm consultant's opinion expected within days

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SOUTH PORTLAND — The city has hired an outside engineer to determine whether a liquefied petroleum gas tank farm proposed for Rigby Rail Yard is permissible.

Tom Schwartz, project manager at the Portland branch of Woodard and Curran, is expected to report back to Code Enforcement Director Pat Doucette within a few days.

Schwartz, whose appointment was announced Wednesday by Planning and Development Director Tex Haeuser, could not be reached for comment.

According to his company biography, Schwartz has more than “23 years of experience in wastewater engineering and operations projects,” with a focus on “municipal wastewater pumping, treatment, and residuals management projects.”

His experience also includes “energy and process evaluations, design, bidding and construction services for conventional and nutrient removal facilities.” 

Schwartz is being asked to interpret the city’s zoning regulations with regards to the storage of fuel gas proposed by NGL Supply Terminal Co. 

Since late February, when representatives from the Tulsa, Oklahoma-based company presented a development proposal that included the installation of six 60,000-gallon above-ground tanks to store liquid propane, the project has been interpreted and deemed permissible, at least in its preliminary stage, by Doucette, Planning Department staff, and Deputy Fire Chief Miles Haskell.

City ordinances prohibit the storage of “fuel or illuminating” gas “in excess of 10,000 cubic feet” in the non-residential industrial zone. Liquefied petroleum gas is defined in the section as any material that is composed predominantly of any of the following hydrocarbons “or mixtures of them: propane, propylene, butane, and butylene.”

In her assessment, Doucette said she did not believe “gas” applied to NGL’s product because it would arrive as a liquid and leave as a liquid.

“NGL is not proposing to store gas in excess of 10,000 cubic feet or otherwise. (Liquid propane is not measured in cubic feet; it is measured in gallons.),” Doucette wrote in a March 11 email to City Manager Jim Gailey.

The city’s allowances for storing and handling petroleum products still prohibit the storage of more than 25,000 gallons in “new above-ground storage tanks.”

The City Council could grant a waiver to allow storage of more than 25,000 gallons in above-ground tanks. But even that, according to the ordinance, prohibits the storage of more than 50,000 gallons, and NGL’s proposal calls for approximately 360,000 gallons.

Some residents have since publicly highlighted multiple sections of the ordinance, one of which Schwartz has been tasked with interpreting, because  the proposal is seemingly incongruous with the code

NGL, after meeting with city staff in early April, was given three options for proceeding with its application: it could draft an addendum text amendment to the Code of Ordinances, request a waiver of the 25,000-gallon limit from the City Council, or apply with Pan Am Railways, which owns Rigby, for a federal interstate commerce exemption to the city’s zoning requirements.

The city decided last week to seek a third-party interpretation of its code. 

“This is a really strange thing that’s happening, about whether something is an interpretation or is it a determination. This is what the code actually says, and it actually lists propane as one of those storage-limited fuel gases,” resident Eben Rose told the council Monday.  

Rose also criticized the way city staff have handled NGL’s proposal. 

“Debate has swirled over the past couple of months about our code enforcement officer’s unique-in-the-world determination that propane is not a fuel gas,” he said. “This absurd claim arose without consultation outside of a cozy triad of city staffers who invented new definitions and new language of the code to replace what it directly states.”

Rose said it isn’t up to staff to hold an open debate about whether the merits of a propane development violate code. “These decisions were made already decades ago, and repeatedly, by our duly-elected City Council,” he said.

Rose also cited his correspondence with Eric Nette of the National Fire Protection Association, who told him the NFPA standard is that “the storage, handling, transportation, and use of liquefied petroleum gas (which includes liquefied propane),” refers to gas in “either the liquid or vapor state.”

In other words, Rose said, the NFPA acknowledges that propane is a gas. 

“This was a bad call, and it remains an embarrassment to the city and exposes some rather serious issues about what consultation goes on in city staff and how they deal with what was, ultimately, a mistake,” Rose said.

Doucette said the city expects to hear back from Schwartz by the beginning of next week.

When asked if the city would still move forward with NGL’s application even if Schwartz returns with an interpretation different from hers, Doucette said, “we will wait and see what Mr. Schwartz has to say.”

 Alex Acquisto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow Alex on Twitter: @AcquistoA

South Portland and Scarborough reporter for The Forecaster. Graduate of Western Kentucky University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Alex can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106.