Maintaining Maine: A Rural Community Debates its Future

Harpswell, Maine is a small fishing community in the mid-coast region. One half of the town is a narrow neck of land, jutting into Casco Bay, and the other, a string of three islands connected by bridges. As the town library puts it, "On the west is a single peninsula, Harpswell Neck, a thin finger of granite, pine and rolling meadows dotted with classic 19th century homes, a scattering of working farms, white churches of architectural perfection and the no-nonsense front yards of the Neck’s scores of working lobstermen." The townspeople are friendly, and most were born and grew up there. The town seems to consist of a couple of long, scenic roads, a few houses and some breathtaking views.

More than 100 people gather to protest the LNG terminal. Ron Lapointe, a Harpswell fisherman, addresses the crowd.© Darcie Moore/The Times Record

Harpswell is a wonderful place to raise children or retire. It is also the home of a defunct Navy fuel depot, which made it an ideal place for TransCanada Corporation, in partnership with ConocoPhillips, to try and install a liquefied natural gas facility to be called Fairwinds.

In September of 2003, TransCanada made what the company felt was a very fair offer to the town selectmen. It promised employment for 900 people for the three-year construction period, and 50 permanent positions. The project was to present the town with a $100,000 payment upon approval, and $250,000 per year during the permitting phase. In addition, it offered $3 million for the acquisition of alternative coastal property, $500,000 per year in a community investment fund during the construction phase, and a lease that would pay $6 million per year during construction and $8 million per year once the plant was in operation. A date was set to vote on this issue within three months.

Although the selectmen felt it was their duty to present the offer to the town, there was considerable controversy. The town had recently ratified a comprehensive development plan that prohibited any heavy industry in Harpswell, and a re-gasification plant (converting liquefied natural gas to natural gas) was certainly heavy industry no matter how much money was involved.

The proposed plant was to include two tanks that would hold super-cooled and compressed liquefied natural gas. The tanks were to be 120 feet high and would be able to be seen from almost anywhere on Harpswell Neck. The tanks would be supplied by a 1,000-foot tanker that would arrive approximately every four to nine days.

Accommodating the tanker in Middle Bay would mean that lobster fishing in that area would have to stop during transit. There was also to be digging in the bay for a pipe that would send the decompressed gas to the main distribution network of natural gas pipes.

The company stressed that it would take all possible environmental precautions, including use of a "sustainable design" and water access to the site during construction to minimize effects on Harpswell residents. "LNG facilities enjoy a long history of safe and environmentally sensitive operations worldwide," the company said. "LNG facilities are highly regulated by local, state and federal authorities in the United States."

Almost immediately, coalitions were formed to prevent the plan. Fishing Families for Harpswell represented the fishermen and lobstermen. Harpswell is one of the most productive fishing communities in Maine, and is considered a model for good fishing management. The town issues more than 500 commercial fishing licenses every year and fishing constitutes 50 to 60 percent of local jobs.

A union-based group in favor of the Fairwinds project holds a press conference outside the gates of the former Navy Depot.©Troy R. Bennett/The Times Record

Fairplay for Harpswell represented other townspeople who felt a LNG plant was a bad idea. "If the Fairwinds project becomes reality, many of our friends and neighbors will likely be irreparably harmed," the Friends cautioned. "At present, the only safety facts regarding the Harpswell operation have been given to us by ConocoPhillips and TransCanada
This project will affect surrounding towns, and they will not get any of the financial windfall that is being offered to Harpswell. Are we being a good neighbor to towns such as Brunswick, Yarmouth, Freeport and others?…The environmental impact of this project may be very detrimental.
We do not know how the construction or operation of the LNG depot will impact fish and shellfish stocks—or Harpswell’s fishing and lobstering industry."

While the group in favor of Fairwinds project had the resources of Conoco-Phillips to draw upon, the opposing groups had to raise their own money. Fundraisers included lobster dinners, and a raffle of services and local art. Cash donations came in from many members of the community. In addition, local and non-local businesses and craftspeople donated numerous services and hours of time.

Because of the large amount of money involved, many people believed having CononcoPhillips as a neighbor was a great idea. Most of the positive sentiment came from island residents, who lived miles distant from the proposed plant. In general, it was hoped that the money from the plant would offset property taxes (although Harpswell’s are by no means the highest in the state) and provide some services that Harpswell lacked, such as a library. Some of the supporters hoped to secure one of the 50 promised jobs. The positive faction was vocal, and tempers between the two sides quickly ran high. There were many incidents of vandalism. Signs (ranging from "Vote "Yes" for Fairwinds" to "Fair Play for Harpswell" and "Fishing Families Count Too") were torn up or deposited in local ponds. Mailboxes were smashed and there was plenty of name calling. The level of furor made it hard to justify such a quick vote, and the decision was put off until spring.

Members of Fishing Families and Fairplay had to work had to keep level heads. Fairplay paid Yellow Wood Associates of St. Albans, Vermont, to prepare an economic study of the fiscal impact of having a LNG plant in the town. And while opponents worried and speculated about the ecological impact, proponents brushed their concerns away (and pointed to the industry’s safety record).

Walter Norton, a member of Fair Play, and Dana McIntire of Fishing Families traveled (at their own expense) to Nikiski, Alaska, along with independent observer John Lloyd to inspect TransCanada’s facility there. Although the staff in Alaska was helpful and the townspeople were generally happy with their industrial neighbor, the delegation concluded there were few, if any, similarities between Nikiski and Harpswell.

There was extensive media coverage, and both sides showed ingenuity in attracting it. Some residents created a TV news event by having people gather in a large field to make a human outline of a LNG tanker. There were more than 100 editorials in the local Harpswell Anchor, many hours of public-access TV and dozens of editorials and articles in papers from towns surrounding Harpswell—as far down the coast as Portland. Some members of Fishing Families for Harpswell put buoys by their driveways. The town selectmen declared this display to be messy, and ordered it all in one place, creating even more impact. Members of Fairplay created large individual signs—many very artistic and creative—that they placed along the main roads.

The final vote occurred on March 9, 2004. The issue was so contentious, that two members of the sheriff’s department, and later some state police were dispatched to keep things orderly. Despite these precautions, a bomb threat was called in from a pay phone at a local Wal-Mart. The threat was inves

tigated and found to be false and in the end 72 percent of the town turned out to vote. In the highest voter turn out ever for Harpswell, the proposal put forth by TransCanada was rejected by a 50 percent margin. In the last days before the vote, both groups that were opposed continued to canvass door to door, and a poignant video was produced explaining why Harpswell should stay as it had always been.

Afterwards, some of the supporters of the Fairwinds project called for a re-vote, saying the bomb scare had driven away voters that would have otherwise voiced an opinion. In a matter of days, Fairplay had collected 1,500 signatures on a petition opposing the re-vote. There was no re-vote. Harpswell, a small backwater town, had repelled a multi-billion dollar corporation.

But few observers think the LNG issue is dead. According to the nonprofit group Save Casco Bay, "There is still discussion and the possibility that another site will be identified. After much consideration, the board of directors of Save Casco Bay does not feel we are in the clear. Until the pipeline in Maine reaches its full potential we are not free from an LNG threat to our bay." The group shows a picture of a 900-foot tanker docked next to "Ernie’s 36-foot lobster boat" and asks, "Does this belong at Hope Island or Casco Bay?"

Selina Rifkin divides her time between Connecticut and Maine.


Fairplay for Harpswell

Fishing Families for Harpswell

Save Casco Bay