Conflict Over Heavy Industry in Wilmot – posted 5/6/2015 and published in the Concord Monitor on 5/9/2015
This piece appeared in the Concord Monitor on May 9, 2015 under the title “Fuel Facility out of Place in the Wilds of Wilmot”.
I have lived in Wilmot for 26 years. It is the longest I have lived anywhere in my life. I grew up in Lower Merion, a suburb of Philadelphia. Wilmot cannot be mistaken for a suburb. It is rural, located roughly between Mount Kearsarge and Ragged Mountain, in central New Hampshire.
Living in Wilmot, you have some elbow room. That space, a feature of country living, correlates to a decrease in anxiety. You can breathe a little more freely. Wilmot is free of the congestion and density typical of urban areas.
I own a tee-shirt that says: “Welcome to fabulous Wilmot, New Hampshire. What happens here stays here…But nothing ever really happens here.” It captures the feel of the town. Wilmot is quiet and located in the middle of nowhere. Part of its charm is its out-of-the-wayness.
When you tell people from outside New Hampshire – or even within New Hampshire – that you are from Wilmot, most of them have never heard of it.
The town of 1400 residents covers a pretty big geographic area and it is spread out. It has three distinct areas: Wilmot Flat, Wilmot Center, and North Wilmot. Where I live in North Wilmot is the boondocks. A neighbor once described the drive in the spring up Teel Hill to North Wilmot as like entering a long green tunnel.
In the background stands Mount Kearsarge. During foliage season last year, my friend Steve, my dog Shady and I all hiked up Kearsarge. We took the longer trail down. It was nothing short of spectacular.
There is no shortage of wildlife. We co-habitate with bears, deer and moose. Over the years, two of my golden retrievers have been porcupined. I just noticed the top of a hard plastic compost container in my backyard has been ripped in half and tossed. The likely culprit was a bear, one of my neighbors.
North Wilmot is a great area for hiking around and walking dogs. There are plenty of dirt back roads and virtually no traffic. In the summer you can find swimming holes and big rocks to lie on and sun yourself.
Other than an occasional new home going up, development has been slow. We are so far from most businesses that it is hard to find much local employment. Many people travel far for work. They choose to live in Wilmot because of the place.
Nobody has captured our sense of place better than Donald Hall. He began writing poetry about life in Wilmot during summers spent working at his grandparent’s farm. Now in his 80″s, he is still writing essays about life here, past and present. In Here at Eagle Pond, he has an essay entitled “Why We Live Here”. He wrote:
“We live where we live for landscape and seasons, for the place of it, but also for the time of it, daily and historical time.”
So it was a total shock to learn about the new effort to locate heavy industry in Wilmot, a project of jarring inconsistency with history and tradition. Huckleberry Oil and Propane Company plans to build an above ground storage and distribution facility with four tanks of propane holding 120,000 gallons, a 20,000 gallon heating oil tank, a 10,000 gallon kerosene tank and a five bay garage. The potential site is on Route 11, next to Scott’s Yard Care.
At present, there is no heavy industry in Wilmot. While inappropriate, profit-seeking development often seems like an almost normal part of modern life, I, for one, must say that I did not expect an attempt to bring a piece of the New Jersey Turnpike into our collective lives in Wilmot.
Part of what makes this effort surprising is that Wilmot residents previously voted to prohibit heavy industry in the town. At town meeting held in March 1968, Wilmot residents approved an ordinance banning the storage of flammable and explosive materials in the town. That ordinance has never been repealed.
I would suggest it is not knee-jerk environmentalism or some form of NIMBYism to have very serious reservations about this project. I have three concerns.
My first concern is environmental. The projected location is poorly conceived. It is too near critical water resources. The drainage from the proposed site flows under Route 11 and very near Whitney Brook which is connected to Chase and Tannery pond and the Blackwater River.
It is hardly paranoid to be concerned about water quality. Wilmot residents have wells and swimming areas connected to the same watershed near the project. Contamination of the groundwater could be disastrous.
If you were a property owner in the vicinity, I doubt you bargained for nearby fuel storage tanks. In spite of Huckleberry’s assurances to the contrary, there is a history of fuel tanks leaking at many sites in New England. What would even one bad leak or accident mean for this small town?
I do think the town has an obligation to assess the risk before it goes farther down this road. Town officials should look carefully at Huckleberry’s safety record at its other New Hampshire facilities. More generally, they should consider other communities’ experience with contamination from leaking storage tanks to understand the risks this facility poses to Wilmot’s water, air and soil.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has published quite a bit on source water protection. It reports that there are currently 3,000 contaminated sites across the region that still await clean-up. Here is an apropos quote from a 2010 EPA publication about above ground storage tanks.
“Storage tank releases can contaminate soil and drinking water supplies. Petroleum products are composed of volatile organic compounds. Even a small spill can have a serious impact. A single pint of oil released into the water can cover an acre of water surface and can seriously damage an aquatic habitat. A spill of only one gallon of oil can contaminate a million gallons of water. It may take yers for an ecosystem to recover from the damage cause by an oil spill.”
The EPA goes on to say that the location of a facility must be considered in relation to drinking water wells, streams, ponds, and other navigable waters. Factors like the distance to drinking water wells and surface water, the volume of material stored, worse case weather conditions and drainage patterns must be considered.
I personally think it would be wise for the town to hire an impartial expert to explore all the environmental issues raised. Apparently the Planning Board is going to do that.
My second concern is aesthetic. By any measure, the project is an eyesore. While Wilmot does need fuel, it doesn’t need such an ugly industrial structure in a place of high visibility. It would be the equivalent of a Blakean satanic mill. Just what Wilmot needs in a prominent location – a potential Superfund site!
The storage facility will be lit 24 hours a day. The lighting will be on 20 foot poles. Because the site is raised well above the road, nearby residents are concerned about the night light being cast far and wide.
There are some other unanswered questions. How tall would the fence be around the project? What kind of security would there be? Would tanker trucks be coming and going at all hours, 24/7? And what about fire fighting in the event of an explosion? Can Wilmot’s small volunteer Fire Department handle that?
My last concern is procedural and legal. Stepping back, I hope town officials do not feel compelled to rush through any process of approval. The questions are too serious, the risks too high.
From my perspective, the fact that the Wilmot Zoning Board of Adjustment granted a variance to allow the project to move forward should be of little consequence. That was before almost the whole town knew what was happening.
Without getting into the particulars, I will say the early part of the process has, at the very least, an appearance of impropriety. I have wondered how a town ordinance approved by the town voters could be trumped by a highly questionable approval of a variance that had zero public participation. If anyone were to take the time to read the variance application submitted by Huckleberry I believe they will see it is a bad joke. The lofty conditions that must be met before approval is granted require both public input and buy in, which never actually happened, and is unlikely to.
In thinking about what is happening in Wilmot, I am reminded of the famous Thoreau quote from his essay “Walking”: “…in Wildness is the preservation of the World.” Maybe Wilmot is not too wild but it does not need to foul its nest. Not every assertion of private profit-making corresponds to the public interest. Sometimes it is better to simply leave things as they are.