After instituting numerous green practices and hiring a specialist, the city looks to ban foam packaging, assess bag fees, limit pesticides and install a biomass boiler.
By Kelley Bouchard, Staff Writer
Portland Press Herald news story
SOUTH PORTLAND — It’s no surprise that the planned municipal services facility on Highland Avenue will be energy-efficient and environmentally friendly, with solar hot water, a truck-washing bay that recycles water and quite possibly a biomass heating system.
The city is following a 40-page Municipal Climate Action Plan that puts South Portland at the forefront of a few Maine communities that are taking wide-ranging steps to reduce pollution and increase sustainability. Zero-waste city gatherings, solar panels on municipal office buildings, electric cars and charging stations are just a few recent additions.
Wednesday night, the City Council will consider a ban on plastic-foam packaging and a 5-cent fee on disposable shopping bags to encourage the use of reusable bags. And potential restrictions on pesticide use are being promoted by a community group and developed by city staff.
The energy-efficient municipal services facility is part of a $15.7 million project that got underway last month when construction began on a new solid-waste transfer station at the Highland Avenue site. Construction of the municipal services building itself is expected to start next March and be completed in June 2017.
The planned 63,000-square-foot facility will house the city’s public works, transportation, parks and recreation divisions, and will provide space for maintaining vehicles from all municipal departments, including police, fire and rescue. It is being designed so the building can be expanded easily and cost-effectively as community needs change, said project manager Rick Towle.
“We needed to maximize the potential of this site,” he said. “We not only want this building to be efficient, but we’ve made sure we can add on in the future.”
The facility and transfer station are financed by a $14 million bond approved by voters in 2013 and $1.7 million in capital improvement funds.
The building will replace the existing public works complex on O’Neil Street, a cramped and outdated facility in a residential neighborhood. Recent engineering tests of the 6-acre O’Neil Street site showed minimal contamination, indicating that it’s a candidate for future residential development, according to a memo from City Manager Jim Gailey.
Towle and other city staffers are designing the new facility with assistance from Sebago Technics of South Portland and SMRT of Portland. Last month, they sought guidance from the City Council about installing a wood-chip-burning biomass boiler to provide heat.
An oil or natural gas system would be much cheaper to install, costing $100,000 or $200,000, respectively, compared with $1.4 million to $1.6 million for a biomass system, Towle said.
However, the estimated annual cost of heating the facility with wood chips would be about $40,000, compared with $86,000 using oil and $112,000 using natural gas, according to the project proposal.
Factored over 30 years, the total cost of installing, maintaining and fueling a biomass system would be just over $3 million, compared with nearly $3.8 million for natural gas and nearly $4.2 million for heating oil. Moreover, greenhouse gases produced by the biomass system would be tiny – 8 tons per year – compared with heating oil and natural gas – 458 tons and 328 tons per year, respectively.
“We want to make sure we’re not going to be burdening the taxpayer with a system that’s not going to be sustainable in the future,” Towle said.
Councilors indicated they liked the biomass idea, but asked Towle to provide more information about the impacts of the wood-burning system on the environment and city employees. They also urged Towle to seek competitive bids, which he said would be done.
Towle said he sought councilors’ guidance on the heating system because he hopes to get their full support when they vote on the project later this year. He’s also developing a “frequently asked questions” information sheet for community members.
“We think the public will have questions,” Towle said. “We don’t want to have to design it twice.”
FOAM PACKAGE BAN, BAG FEE LIKELY
In other examples of its move toward sustainability, the city in recent years has installed solar panels on the planning department’s building, purchased electric cars and made their charging stations accessible to the public, among other efforts.
Last summer, the council sided with environmental advocates and passed an ordinance to prevent the Portland Pipe Line Corp. from reversing its flow to bring Canadian tar sands oil to Portland Harbor. The ban is being challenged in federal court.
Now city staffers are following Portland’s lead in considering a ban on polystyrene or plastic foam food packaging and a 5-cent fee on one-time-use paper and plastic shopping bags. The foam container ban and bag fee proposals are up for a first reading and tentative approval Wednesday.
Portland officials recently banned polystyrene packaging because it breaks into smaller non-biodegradable pieces that are harmful to wildlife and the environment and there’s no economically feasible way to recycle it locally. The ban affects food packagers and establishments that prepare foods, including restaurants, supermarkets, food trucks and convenience stores, which are expected to use recyclable paper and plastic packaging.
Portland also recently passed a bag fee, hoping to reduce waste and encourage shoppers to bring their own bags. The fee applies to supermarkets, convenience stores, gas stations, pharmacies and other vendors that sell food items. It doesn’t apply to restaurants, or to stores where food items make up less than 2 percent of gross sales. Bags that pharmacists provide for prescription medications are exempt.
While the South Portland City Council is expected to approve similar polystyrene and bag fee proposals, the ordinances likely wouldn’t take effect until early next year, said Julie Rosenbach, who was hired in February as the city’s first sustainability coordinator.
The city has notified more than 230 South Portland businesses that have food licenses and could be affected by the ordinance changes.
“Most of the calls I’ve been getting are saying they just want to know the timing,” Rosenbach said. “We’ll have several months of outreach and education so businesses and community members can prepare.”
PESTICIDE BAN IN EARLY STAGES
City staffers also are developing a pesticide ban, an ordinance that could take a bit longer to finalize, Rosenbach said.
The council already has held a few workshops and indicated strong support for an effort to ban the use of pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers. The campaign is being led by the community group Protect South Portland.
Rosenbach and other staffers have started working on the language, but the scope of the ban and which chemicals, users and vendors would be affected remain to be seen.
Twenty-five Maine communities, including Brunswick, Rockland, Wells, Lebanon and Waterboro, have pesticide-control ordinances that ban or regulate the type or method of pesticides used in municipal, agricultural and forestry applications, and near drinking-water supplies.
Ogunquit is the only town to extend its ordinance broadly to include all private property owners, but it’s not an outright ban. It allows pesticides used in certified organic farming, swimming pool chemicals, pet supplies, disinfectants, insect repellents, aerosol products, paints and stains. Restricted pesticides may be used to kill noxious or invasive plants, such as poison ivy, and to address health and safety threats, such as disease-carrying insects.
Supporters say South Portland should adopt a ban to reduce potential harm to people, wildlife and the environment, including ecosystems in Casco Bay that are threatened by chemicals in stormwater runoff.
Rosenbach said a successful ban, like any effort to promote sustainability, would strike a balance between environmental, social and economic concerns.
“I’m looking at sustainability as a whole,” she said.