BRUNSWICK — Proponents of a proposed $12.7 million train layover facility in Brunswick faced their final test on Wednesday at a marathon public hearing before the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.
For opponents who live in an adjacent neighborhood, the hearing was their last chance to stop the project, which they fear will cause flooding in the area and threaten their families’ health with spilled diesel fuel and toxic stormwater runoff.
Nearly 200 people packed the clubhouse at Brunswick Golf Club as Commissioner Patricia Aho, eight of her staffers and two assistant attorneys general heard sworn testimony from proponents and opponents.
The hearing began at 9 a.m. and concluded more than 11 hours later.
At issue: A proposal by the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority to build a 60,000 square-foot building – a single-story shed that would be large enough to cover an entire train. The building would be 655 feet long, 70 feet wide, and 37 feet high.
The abutting neighborhood has been fighting the project for four years.
Donald Foley, who lives on Bouchard Drive, the closest residential street, said it would ruin the lives of his neighbors.
“The overall change in the environment would be catastrophic,” he said.
Supporters said the project would allow trains to stay overnight in Brunswick rather than return to Portland empty. Once the layover facility is built, the rail authority plans to increase the number of daily trips to Brunswick from two to three.
Alison Johnson of Topsham told state regulators not to be alarmed by opponents’ talk of toxic chemicals. The facility would increase train service, she said, and that would mean fewer cars traveling on the roads and less pollution from cars.
“Everything we can do to encourage trains is important,” she said.
Despite the heated emotions on both sides, much of the testimony on Wednesday was technical, such as the location and size of pipes and drains. That’s because the Federal Railroad Administration has already approved the site plan. The rail authority’s only remaining hurdle is winning state approval for its plan to manage stormwater.
During most of the day, the only people allowed to speak were the project engineers and an attorney and a former railroad operator who represented opponents.
Members of the public spoke in the evening. The two hours of public testimony was roughly divided between supporters and opponents, and town councilors spoke on both sides of the issue.
The project has become controversial in state politics as well. State Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, is a fierce opponent of the facility location and of the rail authority. Last year Gov. Paul LePage appointed a neighborhood opponent of the project to the rail authority board of directors.
The public hearing was the first of its kind. Since the law that governs stormwater permits went into effect in 1997, no stormwater permit application has ever before been sent to a public hearing.
Normally, stormwater applications are handled by staff at the DEP, and there are informal discussions between the staff and the applicant engineers. For this project, the department is following a formal administrative process in which all communication becomes a matter of record.
A transcript of the hearing will released to the public on April 10 and written briefs from both sides are due on April 24. The DEP is expected to make a decision in early June.
CORRECTION: This story was updated at 4:55 p.m. on March 26, 2015, to correct the name of the commissioner.