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