Sunday, June 4, 2017

Flawed approval of XNG depot hurts Eliot

Flawed approval of XNG depot hurts Eliot

After only one meeting in which the public was allowed to express its concerns and opinions about safety plans and emergency response, liability, noise, property depreciation, air quality, wetlands and wildlife, enforcement/compliance issues related to a proposed 24/7 XNG natural gas trucking depot, the Eliot Planning Board voted unanimously, 7-0, on Nov. 5 to approve the XNG site application for 535 Route 236.

After only one meeting in which the public was allowed to express its concerns and opinions about safety plans and emergency response, liability, noise, property depreciation, air quality, wetlands and wildlife, enforcement/compliance issues related to a proposed 24/7 XNG natural gas trucking depot, the Eliot Planning Board voted unanimously, 7-0, on Nov. 5 to approve the XNG site application for 535 Route 236.

The trucking depot XNG wants to establish at the site would tap the nearby Maritimes & Northeast Interstate Pipeline (M&NP) that is 684 miles long, stretching from Goldboro, Nova Scotia, to Dracut, Mass. It would occupy a 32-acre site and fill in one quarter acre of wetlands protected by the federal Natural Resources Protection Act.

Earlier this year, XNG Maine established a similar trucking depot in remote, northern Baileyville, Maine, on a site nowhere near a residential zone on not on wetlands. It makes perfect sense.

So it's quite strange to understand the company's application to set up a trucking depot at this particular site in Eliot. It defies all logic. The proposed site abuts a residential area with many farms and historic homes, it sits on protected wetlands that new FEMA flood data clearly identifies as a Hazardous Zone A flood area, it is located on a notoriously busy and dangerous commuter corridor and is less than half a mile away from a middle school with 600 students. Though the site is zoned as Commercial/Industrial on the town's ill-conceived zoning map, XNG asked for far more — they asked to occupy a site that requires an "alteration to existing federal wetlands protection laws." It remains unclear why this huge industrial concern could not find a site for its depot in the already established industrial zone further south on Route 236. Why it needs to set up shop in a fragile ecosystem and near a vital, historic neighborhood comes down to expediency and an easy permitting process in Eliot.

Events leading up to and immediately following the Eliot Planning Board vote unfolded as a bureaucratic and devastating "Perfect Storm" paving the way for an industrial operation that should have been stopped in its tracks for several reasons.

The unfortunate and obvious dog-and-pony show at town Planning Board meetings revealed a deep-seated move on the part of its members to welcome commercial and industrial applicants at all costs. Beyond the brief, 45-minute opportunity to speak afforded to members of the neighborhood affected directly by the XNG project — a timeslot when neighbors submitted signed letters opposing the project on terms of quality of life and depreciation of land, property and business values — the meetings were basically free advertisement opportunities for "Big Gas" to overwhelm the tax revenue hungry Planning Board. The "Besotted 7" were an interesting group; on two occasions, one member with a legal background recommended that they hire an outside consultant to help them to analyze the 150-page XNG application but this was not done.

Another board member demanded a noise study and one was done, but the public doesn't know who did that study. Perhaps XNG? Where is the transparency?

Also missing at these meetings was diverse outside opinion. Advocates from conservation groups, natural gas safety experts, wetlands and wildlife scientists and emergency response personnel were never invited to add their information or opinions in the mix before the vote was taken. If this was done, it was done behind closed doors.

It's obvious that the Planning Board is not qualified to decide a matter as complicated as the XNG Project or experienced in fully exploring all aspects of such a project.

In fact, the chairman of the Eliot Planning Board dissed the town's Conservation Committee in the first public meeting and did not allow the public any follow-up questions with XNG at the one meeting where public discourse was allowed.

A most dispiriting revelation emanated from these Planning Board meetings. It's called the Friends and Family Town Government, where there are no term limits for those serving on various town boards and no limitations on how many boards a person can serve on simultaneously.

Basically, it means that a streak of pro-industrial development stains several committees and boards in Eliot town government, a stain so strong that board members listen to captains of industry over their own citizenry.

This taken together with a flawed, out-dated zoning map, and collusion between certain self-interested board members, means the bar is set very low for commercial development in Eliot.

It didn't take long to realize that the chairman of the Planning Board serves on many committees including, as vice-chairman, the Board of Selectmen and the "rabidly pro-business development on Route 236" Sewer Expansion Committee that has had citizens vote on that project three times. This Planning Board chairman did not recuse himself from deciding on perhaps the biggest commercial developments on Route 236 and not surprisingly in this matter, members of the Business Development Committee showed up to say they approved the XNG project. These individuals have a financial stake in commercial development on Route 236.

This was bad enough but it became even more one-sided when the superintendant of schools at MSAD 35, whose offices are near the middle school, completely deferred to the Planning Board in the XNG matter. In a letter read at the Planning Board meeting the day the vote was taken, the superintendent acknowledged that even though concerns were expressed by several parents about the close proximity of the XNG depot to the school, she would let the Planning Board decide. She did not even ask for an emergency response report from the town or XNG, if one exists. The latter is going to train our small, all volunteer fire department and that appears to be the extent of emergency response.

Information relating to the air filters used on the compressors at the XNG depot and the levels of natural gas emissions they will allow have not been made known to the public.

Even worse, just two days after the Planning Board vote, the beleaguered Maine Department of Environmental Protection (hurt by the unmasking of its chief as a former chemical industry lobbyist) issued a draft letter of approval for the project at the same time it was accepting letters of concern from affected neighbors. I guess these letters will go into the same file/waste basket as those filed at Town Hall objecting to the project.

Additionally, the Maine Department of Transportation and the Public Utilities Commission have not become involved in the project.

The state maintains Route 236 and the DOT does not think that an average of 24 trucks, loaded with compressed natural gas, entering and leaving that site each and every day, day and night, requires a traffic study.

This "Perfect Storm" of self-interest, collusion, lack of transparency, limited public participation, bureaucratic short-sightedness, small town politics and big industry tactics has let this ridiculous plan move forward.

I join my many neighbors in abject disappointment over our town leaders and their willingness to welcome this industrial depot on a site that is blatantly not suited for this use.

XNG still awaits permitting from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. The endangered Blanding's turtle, a rare blue butterfly, white oak and other resident species in the wetlands surrounding and within the proposed XNG site have been identified by the DEP. To hear XNG representatives stand up in our town meetings and say they'll improve the wetlands and save the turtles is tantamount to listening to those self-serving BP (British Petroleum) television commercials that make themselves (the despoilers of the Gulf) out to be living saints whose sole mission is to protect wildlife.

Now that the public in Eliot has voted down a sewer expansion project three times, (we voted down the wave of commercial and industrial business that will come with this expanded sewer), it's time for citizens to tackle a re-do of the town's zoning ordinances so that in future, industrial concerns may not sit next to residential areas, open lands and fragile, flood- prone tracts of land.

Laura Pope is a resident of Eliot, Maine.

May you, and all beings
be happy and free from suffering :)
-- ancient Buddhist Prayer (Metta)

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