SEARSPORT, Maine — As soon as a Denver-based company last year proposed building a massive new propane import terminal in Searsport, the project has proved to be volatile in the midcoast.

DCP Midstream’s first informational meetings last December about its desire to build a $40 million terminal in the Mack Point industrial zone prompted vigorous arguments both for and against the project. And when the Maine Department of Environmental Protection in late October signed a permit for DCP Midstream’s application to construct a terminal there, including a 138-foot-tall propane tank, opposition to the project appeared to fiercely ignite.

The 30 or so tanks already at the existing tank farm at the point are much shorter, measuring about 50 feet tall.

Those in favor of its construction say that Maine needs a local supply source for propane and that the industry is tightly regulated and safe. They argue that it will increase the local tax base and bring some jobs to the area.

“Today, much of the propane coming into Maine is trucked in from out of state,” wrote Doug Morrell of Downeast Energy in Brunswick in a recent BDN letter to the editor. “By supporting DCP Midstream’s proposed marine import terminal, we are reducing the overall truck traffic in the state and lessening the cost of overall transportation for Maine consumers.”

But those against cite concerns about safety, the visual impact to the coastal area and increased truck traffic along Route 1 and Route 3 as the imported propane is carried towards customers.

More than 100 protesters carried signs on Saturday, Nov. 19, expressing their desire to stop the tank project.

“If something comes in of this size, it’s going to change our entire landscape here,” Astrig Tanguay said Saturday. “We want to frame the conversation, ‘How will this benefit our town and our region?’”

Request for moratorium

The Searsport businesswoman is part of Thanks but no Tank, a new, grass-roots group that is working to keep the massive propane tank out of town. Members have circulated a petition on the website that has received about 2,300 signatures so far. They have also locally circulated a petition for a six-month moratorium on major projects, in order to have time to look at the town’s comprehensive plan and make sure it “covers all the things we’re most concerned with,” Tanguay said.

She said that although 135 signatures were needed to bring the petition to the Searsport Board of Selectmen, they easily were able to obtain 230 signatures.

It will come before the selectmen on Tuesday night, according to Tanguay. Searsport residents would have to vote on a moratorium at the annual town meeting in March, she said.

Last month, Roz Elliott, a spokesperson for DCP MIdstream, attempted to defuse some of the opponents’ biggest concerns, such as the danger of having that much combustible fuel stored close to Route 1.

She said that safety is the company’s top value, and that employees are trained to meet the highest safety standards.

“This potential propane import terminal in Searsport, it’s not just an operation to us. It’s the home of our future employees,” she said.

Nuts and bolts

If DCP Midstream’s proposed marine terminal is built at Mack Point, as many as six propane tankers a year would be allowed to offload the fuel at the area’s existing cargo pier. The liquid propane would be pumped through a new, mile-long pipeline that would run primarily above ground to the bulk storage tank at the DCP terminal. The company would offload the propane to trucks and rail cars at the terminal for distribution throughout Maine and potentially to other locations in northern New England. Truck traffic would increase by as much as 50 trips a day, according to a full-page ad the company took out in the BDN last month.

According to recent U.S. Census data information, about 34,000, or six percent, of Maine homes heat with propane. In neighboring New Hampshire, about 12 percent of homes heat that way and about 15 percent of homes in Vermont do.

Searsport Town Manager James Gillway said Friday that the town has not yet received a permit application from DCP Midstream for the project. It would have to receive final approval from the Searsport Planning Board.

“We’re all kind of in limbo,” he said. “We’re getting a lot of letters against and a few letters for, from Searsport and beyond.”

Gillway said that he was under the impression that DCP Midstream was waiting for another permit by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers before submitting an application to the town.

Last month, Elliott said that her company was continuing to work its way through the application process and that it was too soon to give any kind of construction timeline.

DEP review

Some who don’t want the tank have been asking how DCP Midstream was able to secure permits from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection so seemingly fast.

“I can’t believe that DEP granted permits in some of the areas that they did. It defies common sense,” said Marietta Ramsdell of Searsport. “Sometimes, permitting takes years. Basically, this took several months.”

Maine Department of Environmental Protection spokesperson Samantha DePoy-Warren said that this complaint was ironic.

“We get accused of having a slow permitting process, and then we get accused of passing projects too fast,” she said. “This was a very thorough and thoughtful review. With any of these projects, there’s a public comment period that’s required. Nothing can be rushed through.”

But Robin Clukey, an environmental specialist at the Maine Department of Protection, said that she received the application from DCP Midstream on May 20 and accepted it as complete on June 13.

That’s when the clock started to tick for opponents, she said. Interested parties have 20 days from the date that an application has been accepted as complete to file a request for a public hearing from the commissioner or for jurisdiction from the Board of Environmental Protection.

“Nobody did that,” Clukey said.

She continued to work on the application, checking to see if it demonstrated compliance with the standards of the Natural Resources Protection Act and the Site Location of Development Act. Clukey, an engineer, a geologist and an official from the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife all reviewed it. Finally, Clukey recommended that a draft order be signed, which was issued on Sept. 13.

At that point, 30 people submitted comments to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection about the application, she said.

DePoy-Warren said that the department has received a number of letters from concerned citizens. Right now, the Maine Attorney General’s Office is reviewing letters received between Oct. 24, when the permit was issued, and Nov. 23, when the comment period ended.

“It’s not clear at this point if those letters constitute a formalized appeal,” she said. “If it is determined it’s an appeal, it’s likely that the board would consider that in early 2012.”