NGL Supply Terminal Co. has promised that its controversial proposal for a liquefied petroleum gas depot at Rigby Yard in South Portland would be even safer than its current rail distribution site on Commercial Street in Portland.

NGL’s assurances don’t mean much to some South Portland city councilors and residents, who have intensified opposition to the Rigby Yard proposal because they fear a propane depot could be the site of a catastrophic explosion near the Cash Corner and Thornton Heights neighborhoods. Their latest effort, a proposed fire code amendment, could block development of propane storage and delivery facilities throughout much of the city.

But NGL representatives say the company’s safety record matters, including at least a decade without a reported public safety incident at the Portland terminal. They won’t comment on rumors that NGL is scoping out other potential rail delivery sites in Greater Portland, saying that the company is committed to moving to Rigby Yard by next spring so the state can begin building a cold storage facility at the Commercial Street site.

On a tour of the Portland terminal last week, Kevin Fitzgerald, NGL’s regional manager, took the Portland Press Herald through an electronic-entry gate and behind security fencing at the four-acre site. NGL, a subsidiary of NGL Energy Partners of Tulsa, Oklahoma, which includes Brunswick-based Downeast Energy, didn’t allow a photographer on the tour for security reasons.

Fitzgerald pointed to round gauges on five large, white storage tanks that dominate the leased track-side property, one of 20 NGL terminals across the country.

From 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., specially trained and licensed operators use the dials to monitor and control the volume, temperature and pressure of propane as it flows from tank cars through hoses and pipes into the fixed storage tanks, and then into delivery trucks, he said.

“That’s what they do all day,” said Fitzgerald, who has 39 years of experience in propane storage and delivery. “It’s a very, very simple process.”

If an operator spots an unwanted pressure drop or another problem via the gauges, Fitzgerald said, mechanical valves throughout the system can be shut down immediately.

NO CALLS, COMPLAINTS, INCIDENTS

In the past decade, the Portland Fire Department has received no calls or complaints about the NGL facility, though there was a report of a nearby brush fire in 2004 that didn’t involve the terminal, said Assistant Fire Chief Keith Gautreau.

“I can’t recall any incidents there,” said Gautreau, a 21-year firefighter. “(Terminal operators have) always been cooperative and responsive to anything we’ve asked for, not that we’ve asked for much.”

The safety and security system for the proposed South Portland facility would be expanded and feature the latest technology, Fitzgerald said, including security cameras, infrared fire detectors, multiple hydrants and a “programmable logic center” to monitor and control fuel storage and flow around the clock. Some features will go beyond national standards.

“We have controls in place here (in Portland) that we’re only going to build on in South Portland, so the safety will only go up,” Fitzgerald said.

If the programmable logic center detects a problem, “it would automatically shut down the entire system,” he said.

And if the computer fails, as they sometimes do?

“You’d still have manual override,” he said.

Fitzgerald’s assurances and NGL’s much-touted safety record mean little to Brad Fox, one of three South Portland city councilors who have pushed for – unsuccessfully so far – a six-month moratorium on development of propane facilities.

Councilor-elect Eben Rose, who will be sworn in Dec. 7, also has expressed opposition to the NGL proposal. However, another of the seven councilors would have to change his or her position to have the five votes needed to approve a moratorium. Councilors agreed to vote on the moratorium Dec. 9.

Fox has proposed a fire code amendment that would block the development of propane storage and distribution facilities near anything considered “critical infrastructure,” including government buildings, schools, hospitals, medical clinics, public utilities and telecommunications.

As of last week, the language of the proposed amendment remained in flux and Fox said he didn’t know whether it would apply retroactively to stop NGL’s proposal for Rigby Yard, a 245-acre industrial site that’s near the Cash Corner Fire Station.

“It might (stop the NGL proposal). I wouldn’t be upset if it did,” Fox said. “One of the things we’re worried about is, if something happened, it would blow up the firehouse and (firefighters) wouldn’t be able to respond.”

The council has yet to schedule a discussion or vote on Fox’s proposal.

Fox said he was surprised when Fire Chief Kevin Guimond, a 28-year firefighter who left his post Friday to work in the private sector, stood before city councilors Nov. 9 and vouched for the fire department’s ability to scrutinize NGL’s proposal under the existing fire code, demand necessary project upgrades and ensure that the facility would operate safely when completed.

“I can’t believe (Guimond) said what he said,” Fox said. “I can’t believe he thinks it’s going to be safe (because) it’s not. He isn’t a safety engineer. This isn’t his area of expertise.”

Guimond defended his department’s review of the Rigby Yard proposal so far, noting that NGL has already agreed to reduce the depot’s size and add security features such as cameras and fencing. He said he expects Acting Fire Chief Miles Haskell to carry on a rigorous project review when NGL submits additional materials requested by city planners, probably early this week.

“All I care about is the fire code and that we follow it and that the site is safe,” Guimond said last week. “This is not an emotional exercise for us. We don’t care if you build it or you don’t. But if you build it, it’s gonna be safe.”

NGL REVISIONS, MORE DATA NEEDED

NGL submitted a preliminary proposal for Rigby Yard in February, then followed with a substantially downsized formal proposal in September. It reduced the maximum amount of propane that could be at the 10-acre depot from more than 1 million gallons to about 744,000 gallons.

NGL has since agreed to further reduce the depot’s capacity to just over 500,000 gallons, including as many as 16 rail tank cars that hold 30,000 gallons each, and one fixed, 24,000-gallon storage tank.

NGL’s Portland facility has fixed storage for 280,000 gallons of propane and track capacity for eight rail tank cars.

City Planner Tex Haeuser sent a letter to NGL last month seeking a wide variety of design and safety information found lacking in the company’s September application, including a “detailed, step-by-step narrative, accompanied by plan details, describing the rail car offloading, storage and truck loading of (liquefied propane) from site arrival to departure from the site.”

When NGL submits additional information, as early as Monday, Fox and other opponents are worried that some important details will be kept secret, ostensibly for public safety or proprietary reasons, and thus prevent a full review.

“There’s a lot more they can do to make it safe and we’re trying to push them to do it,” Fox said. “Because if it happens, we want it to be as safe as possible.”

NGL representatives said they plan to fulfill the city’s request for more information and leave it to city officials to decide what should be kept secret. Guimond said access to emergency response plans might be limited to certain city officials and public safety personnel.

“There are certain things we don’t want people to know how to do,” NGL’s Fitzgerald said. “We’ll provide the information to the fire department and other city officials, but making that information public would be a problem.”