Proposed propane tank prompts protests

The Seaview residential community is rising up to prevent the installation of a 30,000-gallon propane storage tank.

A request for a conditional use permit for 27 Seaview Street came before San Juan County Hearing Examiner Sharon Rice on July 13. A new local business, Inter-Island Propane, asked the county to put the storage tank on a vacant lot of land zoned service and light industrial. Inter-Island is in the process of purchasing the land.

“With the recent buyout of VanderYacht Propane by AmeriGas (DBA San Juan Propane) we both realized the importance of a new option for the residents of San Juan County,” said Inter-Island Propane co-owner Donny Galt. “As we both came to the partnership table we realized how valuable we will be as partners. (Co-owner) Jimmie Lawson’s 30-plus years in the heating and cooling business and my 30-plus years in a variety of entrepreneurial ventures has created, in my opinion, a perfect match for a new propane sales and service company.”

Inter Island Propane is based on San Juan Island but serves the entire county. The business currently has a 30,000-gallon tank in Friday Harbor behind Browne’s Home Center and next to private residences.

Safety concerns

To those living in houses near the proposed tank on Seaview, the benefits do not outweigh the cost. More than 30 letters of opposition were sent to the hearing examiner prior to the hearing. Safety concerns, such as an explosion or a leak, topped the list of reasons why nearby residents do not want the tank placed there.

“Technically, fuel storage may be classified as ‘light industrial’ by the county, but there are other important factors that make this classification incorrect,” said Aeroview developer Robert Waunch in a letter to the hearing examiner. “No matter how many safety factors are employed with this type of facility – accidents happen and the outcome could be a serious loss of lives. You don’t store volatile materials, eg. fuel, explosives, fertilizer, etc. near homes.”

Aeroview Lane hanger owner Eric Gourley said he feared for the safety of the community should a propane leak occur. He said he’s learned a lot about the properties of propane in the past few weeks and has noted that if a leak happened it would flow right into a hanger/apartment to the east of the property, where a welder and his wife live.

“We’re going to meet and exceed all the regulations that the National Fire Protection Association sets forth as policy,” said Galt. “I’m going to work with the fire department and department of emergency management. I want to be open with everybody to make sure it’s the safest facility Orcas Island – actually, every island – has ever seen before.”

Arch Hudelson, a representative of Meeder Ransome, the equipment manufacturer who built the storage tank that Inter-Island would be using, also sent a letter to the hearing examiner explaining the safety features of the vessel. He wrote that there are several safety mechanisms in place to prevent leaks due to human error. A pneumatic lever must be manually rotated while fueling is occurring; this lever will initiate the air brakes on the truck so it is unable to pull away while still attached.

“The code these tanks have to comply with is the National Fire Protection Association – Pamphlet 58,” said Hudelson. “There are several levels of safety compliance these vessels may be subject to. Inter Island Propane’s storage tank is engineered and designed to the most stringent level of compliance.”

Dave Robinson from Gibsons, the delivery truck manufacturer, also wrote a letter to the hearing examiner.

“We have a perfect record of delivery with no reportable problems for nearly 20 years of deliveries,” said Robinson, adding that he appreciates that the island values safety and the environment.

Zoned for service and light industrial

Galt said he looked for other locations to put the tank, but the only service and light industrial zone on Orcas starts on Mt. Baker Road and abuts residences. Any land located outside of the Eastsound Water Users Association system would not have the water capabilities to fight a fire should one occur.

“We’ve been searching for property around the island for nine months now,” said Galt. “there is absolutely bare minimum land available for this type of land use.”

Other businesses in the zone are NAPA, Gordy’s Garage, Island Hoppin’ Brewery, Orcas Animal Shelter, LotionCrafter, NW Connoisseurs, the San Juan County Sheriff’s substation and a medical facility, as well as San Juan County Public Works and San Juan Propane, both of which have existing propane and fuel tanks on their land.

A history of evacuations

Many residents on Seaview Street expressed concerns stemming from two previous hazardous chemical releases that resulted in residents being evacuated from the neighborhood. In February 2015, a VanderYacht truck drove away from a tank with the hose still attached, leading to the evacuation of all homes and businesses within a ½-mile radius around the leak. The second evacuation came just months later, in April 2015, when an Island Petroleum truck carrying fuel drove off the road and flipped, causing a fuel spill and another ½-mile radius evacuation.

“Didn’t we learn anything from the first spill?” asked Kurt Thorson in a letter to the hearing examiner. “The situation is still the same. The neighborhood is still the same.”

The safety issues neighbors cited in letters to the hearing examiner included the possibility of the tank leaking propane and a potentially deadly boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion (BLEVE). A BLEVE occurs when a tank containing pressurized liquid (such as liquid propane) is heated above the liquid’s boiling point and ruptures.

Water pressure woes

In a July 27 memorandum from Interim San Juan County Fire Marshal RJ Myers, he explained that a new hydrant would need to be installed on the corner of Seaview and Aeroview to fulfill the hydrant distance requirements in San Juan County Code and that the newly installed hydrant must be capable of producing 500 gallons per minute for 60 minutes.

Paul Kamin, director of Eastsound Water Users Association, disagrees. He said that 1,000 gallons a minute would be needed, per talks he’s had with Orcas Island Fire and Rescue Fire Chief Scott Williams. Five hundred gallons to keep the tank cool and 500 to battle whatever fire is causing the tank to be heated.

“I can guarantee you that none of the fire hydrants in that neighborhood or the distribution system is capable right now of 1,000 gallons a minute,” said Kamin. “It never needed to be designed to be there.”

Williams did not confirm or deny what he said to Kamin, but he told the Sounder: “We are considering the need for additional water supply requirements. We need to evaluate the capabilities of that area of water mains and see if it is even possible to upgrade.”

According to the Omaha World Herald in December 2009, there was a fire at Norfolk, Nebraska, factory that housed a 30,000-gallon propane tank. A one mile radius was evacuated in the town, just in case the tank exploded. According to the fire chief at the time, the fire was extinguished using a system that pumped just 300 gallons of water per minute onto the tank.

Airport apprehension

Another infrastructural concern is that there is only one method of ingress (entry) and egress (exit) for the proposed location. Aeroview Lane and Seaview Street are both dead-end streets. In the case of an emergency, it is possible for evacuees and emergency vehicles to use Aeroview as a thoroughfare across the Orcas Island Airport’s runway, however, Airport Manager Tony Simpson says the Port of Orcas Board of Commissioners will not allow that usage to be part of any emergency planning process.

Simpson said the port commissioners had a list of items they want him to discuss with Rice regarding the proposed land use. The list includes notification of a leak and the length of time the initial evacuation perimeter will be in effect. The port commissioners said in their most recent meeting that the fire department, though excellent at what they do now, are not prepared for the sort of emergency a 30,000-gallon propane tank in a residential neighborhood could cause.

What’s next?

During the July 13 hearing, Rice said that San Juan County has until July 27 to respond in writing to the public comments. Galt requested to have the option to respond, and he has until July 31. Rice will then have until Aug. 14 to issue her decision.

“It’s a hot topic; it’s an emotional topic,” said Williams. “I’m researching as much as I can and … I will be voicing my opinions and recommendations about different safety features for the proposed facility.”

One-mile evacuation radius

One-mile evacuation radius

1/2 mile evacuation radius of property

1/2 mile evacuation radius of property