Skeptical about JRB’s review of Hurley Brothers propane tank

At the Aug. 21 meeting of the Town of North Elba/Village of Lake Placid Joint Review Board, there was a brief progress update regarding controversial application by MWH LLC/Hurley Bros. (case No. 1007) to locate and operate a bulk propane storage and transfer facility at 132 Old Military Road.

Vice Chair Emily Kilburn assumed the role of acting chair since a party to the application, William Hurley, is the current JBR chairman. Both Hurley and board attorney Tim Smith, who has represented Hurley, have recused themselves on the matter due to the obvious conflict of interest.

At the meeting Kilburn noted that two risk assessments have been submitted to the JRB:

1. Hurley Bros. Inc. submission of a five-paragraph letter dated March 19, 2019, from Jody Ameden of JPA Energy Consulting LLC, in which a scant two sentences made mention of proposed features for the propane facility. It did not provide any supporting engineering drawings or formal environmental, safety or traffic studies; and

2. An 86-page, fact-based risk assessment dated April 29, 2019, prepared by North East Energy Strategies and submitted to the JRB by the Concerned Citizens to Protect Lake Placid. This report notes that Hurley’s submission referenced outdated 2011 National Fire Protection Association standards. It concludes, “JPA does not support the statement that the proposed bulk plan will exceed industry standards for safety or express an opinion as to the suitability of the property and risk to the community. … As outlined in this report and based on my professional experience, the size, location, traffic and occupied properties in the area of the proposed site do not meet industry best practices for bulk propane storage, creating an adverse risk to the community and are not able to be mitigated.”

In announcing that the JRB has engaged an expert Tom Heslop of Port Henry to provide a fire and safety study which is to be presented at the Sept. 4 meeting, Kilburn provided no explanation of how this decision was made or who is paying Helsop’s fee.

Helsop’s professional experience includes more than 35 years of service to the New York Propane Gas Association. The May 25, 2017, NYPGA newsletter noted, “Even in retirement, Tom continues to be active in Association affairs and unselfishly gives of his time for the betterment of the propane industry in New York.” It is expected that his report will be consistent with his decades of pro-industry work and in support of the Hurley’s application.

The burden rests on the applicant, Hurley Brothers Inc. — not the JRB — to demonstrate that the proposed usage is safe and appropriate for the Lake Placid community. The board should not be spending taxpayers’ dollars for a for a fire and safety report from a champion of the NYPGA. The JRB’s actions create the perception is that the board is assisting Hurley in his company’s efforts to win conditional use approval for a poorly considered and incomplete application.

A local resident asked Ms. Kilburn if the community could ask questions of Heslop regarding the findings of Helsop’s report at the Sept. 4 meeting. Kilburn indicated that questions would be prohibited. It should  be noted that the community was given an opportunity to question JPA Energy Consulting regarding their submission. 

To date, the JRB’s actions at public sessions on this matter appear to be arbitrary and capricious with a total disregard for addressing important issues, such as:

¯ the effect on adjacent properties and the neighborhood;

¯ the adequacy of existing and planned public infrastructure to serve the proposed facility;

¯ the facility’s effect on traffic, circulation and access; and

¯ the facility’s environmental impacts and adherence to current regulations.

Recent actions raise important questions for the JRB, including:

¯ If an additional fire and safety risk assessment was deemed necessary, why did the board not choose to engage an independent consultant with National Fire Protection Association (or similar) expertise rather than a propane industry advocate? NFPA codes are designed to minimize the risk and effects of fire by establishing criteria for building, processing, design, service and installation of facilities around the world and are widely considered the gold standard.

¯ Why has the Lake Placid Volunteer Fire Department not submitted a detailed assessment regarding its ability to respond to the risks resulting from significantly increased bulk tanker truck traffic on Old Military Road — Essex County’s second highest traffic corridor — and the surrounding area (i.e., hospital, school, Olympic Training Center, Elderwood (seniors’ residential facility), numerous homes and businesses)? Common sense would suggest a critical need for an emergency evacuation plan.

¯ What oversight measures are in place to ensure that all business conducted by the JRB and the code enforcement staff are being handled in an ethical, professional manner with respect to matters regarding potential conflicts of interest? 

The JRB should be encouraging public comments from staff, the applicant and all interested parties prior to acting on application, not prohibiting them. This should be done after all final documents are submitted by the applicant and municipal staff (town, village, county and state agencies), allowing the community a reasonable amount of time to review the material and respond in a public session. Anything short of this invites the perception that the bulk propane storage and transfer facility application is being given special treatment due to Bill Hurley’s position as chairman of the JRB and that back-room deals are being made.

The true cost and consequence of this application is significant. If it is not handled in a thorough, thoughtful and ethical manner, the blame will be on the JRB, code enforcement staff and everyone who was complicit. I encourage all interested members of the community to attend the Sept. 4 meeting. It will be held at 5:30 p.m. at the North Elba Town Hall.

Judy Murphy lives in Lake Placid.

P.S.: The complete the risk assessment by North East Energy Strategies (which includes the JPA Energy Consulting LLC letter) can be downloaded from the publicly accessible Concerned Citizens to Protect Lake Placid Facebook page under “Files.”