BANGOR, Maine — Emera Maine’s tentative plans to build a new substation in a corner of Saxl Park on the state-owned Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center campus has drawn opposition from a group of area residents, park users and birdwatchers.
Emera officials outlined their ideas for the site, located behind Cascade Park, during a Tuesday evening meeting with the city’s Infrastructure Committee. The project is still in its early stages, despite first being proposed in 2011, and Emera is gathering stakeholder feedback.
There’s a growing appetite for electricity on the city’s East Side, according to the power company, and that will only increase when Eastern Maine Medical Center opens its $247 million, seven-story expansion.
The 60-year-old “water works” substation, near Bangor Water District, won’t be able to handle the added demand, according to Emera officials. The current substation has a capacity 4.2 megavolt amperes, while its beefed-up replacement would be rated for 28 megavolt amperes, according to Emera spokeswoman Susan Faloon.
Emera hopes to secure the needed permitting for the project by next summer so it can start construction, but some residents and users of Saxl Park who attended Tuesday’s meeting say they aren’t happy with the location.
The current proposal would tuck the substation into the southwest corner of the park and would be accessed via a future extension to the end of Garland Street.
Saxl park and its wetlands are a popular destination for birdwatchers because of its diverse bird population, and several opponents who spoke at the event worried about how a new substation would affect wildlife there, as well as people’s enjoyment of it. Maine Audubon hosts occasional bird walks in Saxl Park. Joggers and walkers also use the park’s trails.
Garland Street resident Adam Darcy told the committee he was concerned about the fact that homeowners around the substation would be able to see it and that a portion of the trails system would be interrupted. Emera has said trails could be rerouted around the substation and that it would improve the vegetative screening to block views of the substation.
Saxl Park, officially dedicated in 1984, was named for Joseph Saxl, superintendent of the psychiatric hospital from 1974 to 1981. During his tenure, Saxl decided to put to use the overgrown former farmland on hospital grounds. He initiated extensive landscaping work to convert the park into a recreation and leisure area for patients and the public. A Saxl Park Committee still exists today and has been involved in discussions with Emera about the substation.
The substation effort started taking shape in 2011 when EMMC and then-Bangor Hydro Electric Co. began talks about the hospital expansion and future need for power. EMMC opened an $8.4 million, 3,400-square-foot cogeneration plant in 2006, which burns natural gas and fuel oil and met almost all of the hospital’s heat and electricity needs.
However, if the cogen plant were to break down or malfunction, the hospital needs to ensure it has enough electrical supply from public utilities to continue to run, according to Joel Farley, facilities and emergency preparedness administrator for EMMC. The hospital also has a diesel generator system if all else fails.
In 2012, then-Sen. Nichi Farnham, R-Bangor, added an amendment to a Senate bill to allow the state to negotiate the sale of state land to Bangor Hydro. That bill ultimately was adopted, but neither Bangor Hydro nor Emera ever completed the purchase.
Rep. Adam Goode, D-Bangor, is an avid runner and coach of Bangor High School’s cross-country running teams, which run on Saxl Park trails.
He was critical of how the negotiations were authorized, slipped into a larger budget bill while many lawmakers were focused on other issues. It should be noted that the amendment was vetted and approved in Legislative committee and was reported in Bangor Daily News articles at the time.
Goode said he understands the growing need for electricity, but, he added, “I want to be sure every other option has been exhausted.”
Emera’s options are limited, according to Bruce Philbrick, project manager. The current substation near the water district headquarters can’t be expanded because of site limitations. An expansion or new substation along Route 2 doesn’t appear to be viable because the voltage supply reaching Bangor’s east side would be reduced after traveling several miles through transmission lines, he added.
“[Saxl Park] is the best possible site we’ve looked at,” Philbrick said. “There are no other solutions that we can say, ‘Yeah, this is our backup plan.’”
A public hearing on the plan is expected to be scheduled for later this fall. Both the city and state would need to sign off on any sale of state-owned Saxl Park property.
Time is becoming a concern for Emera, as EMMC hopes to begin moving employees and doctors into its new expansion by early 2016 and to fully occupy the building by the spring of 2017.
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter @nmccrea213.