City seeks expert help on fire code

The South Portland City Council on Monday passed proposed amendments to the fire code designed to protect people and property from any mishap at a liquid propane facility.

On first reading, the council voted 7-0 to approve changes to the fire code that would incorporate various federal Environmental Protection Agency regulations related to preventing and minimizing any damage caused by a liquid propane accident.

But, in addition to giving initial approval to the fire code amendments, the council also gave city staff until March 7 to consult with any experts it felt could help tighten up the changes and make them more legally defensible, according to City Attorney Sally Daggett. 

While the council ended up on the same page, a long, passionate discussion preceded the vote, during which both councilors Brad Fox and Eben Rose argued the new fire code amendments proposed by staff bear no resemblance to a citizen-drafted ordinance change submitted in late December.

The goal of that fire code amendment was to impose a minimum safe distance between any liquid propane distribution facility and critical infrastructure, which some in the city have argued would effectively prohibit NGL Supply Co. from moving its operations from the Portland waterfront to the Rigby Rail Yard.

However, under the fire code amendments provided by staff and voted on Monday, liquid propane facilities with between 7,001- and 23,000-gallon tanks would have to be located 1,584 feet from any offsite residences, schools, hospitals, industrial buildings, commercial buildings, office buildings and recreational areas.

This proposal goes further than the minimum safe distance of 1,257 feet proposed by the concerned citizen’s group. It received the support of Devin Deane, whose home is located near to the Rigby Yard and who has been pushing city leaders to do what they can to ensure public safety by regulating new liquid propane distribution facilities more tightly.

“I support the staff version,” he said, “because the whole goal is to protect the public and push LPG plants away from people.”

Jeff Seltzer, another resident, also urged the council to support the staff-written fire code changes because the staff is not only paid to make such recommendations, but also its process is fully “open and transparent,” which, he implied, the citizen-written document was not.

“Forget everything else,” he said. “Take this proposal and move on.”

Seltzer also called the staff-written fire code amendment “a thoughtful measured approach,” although he also had concerns that it was overly broad.

In his position paper provided to the City Council prior to its meeting, City Manager Jim Gailey said the proposed changes to the fire code could “constitute an effective prohibition on bulk LPG plants anywhere within the city,” depending on the size of the liquid propane tanks proposed.

Under South Portland zoning rules, there are only six zones in the city where liquid propane distribution facilities can locate and there is a 10,000-cubic-feet limit on any new liquid propane storage tanks.

Another issue that arose at Monday’s council meeting was a concern that while the proposed changes to the fire code could limit the actions of privately owned companies, railroad companies like Pan Am Railways, which owns the Rigby Yard, could get around any local rules unless expressly prohibited from doing so.

However, resident Kathy Chapman asked the council to pass the fire code changes on first reading.

“The most important factor is the safety of the city,” she said.

She said the council should “take the time to do it right, whether that’s one step or two,” and suggested that city leaders could always go back and add language that would ensure the railroad abided by South Portland’s local ordinances.

Others, like Bob White and Mary-Jane Ferrier, a spokeswoman for Protect South Portland, the citizen-led group responsible for the city’s local ban on tar-sands oil, said the city should do what it can now to protect itself from any liquid propane project the railroad might put forward.

White and Ferrier also argued the city should not concern itself with any legal risk but, as Ferrier said, “to take the time needed to thread the needle and stand up to the railroad.”

When it came time for council discussion, Councilor Linda Cohen made the motion to move the staff-written fire code changes forward on first reading.

Councilor Patti Smith said she feels the City Council is now “going down a positive path to protect citizens.” But, she also noted, “these issues are very complex.”

A proposed new liquid propane distribution facility at Rigby Yard in South Portland has led residents and city councilors to question whether there are enough protections in the local ordinance to prevent damage to people and property in case of an accident.