PROVIDENCE – A contested proposal to expand a propane storage terminal in the Port of Providence has prompted the city to consider changing its zoning laws.
But whether the zoning amendment to ban liquid propane gas storage citywide can block Sea 3 Providence LLC from adding 540,000 gallons worth of fuel storage tanks to its portside facility is unclear.
Sea 3’s expansion has drawn increasing objection from a number of community residents, environmental groups, city and state lawmakers and even the R.I. Office of the Attorney General. Among their concerns are how the proposed expansion might conflict with state decarbonization goals, including the recently enacted Act on Climate legislation, as well as pollution and safety hazards on a low-income, minority community already burdened by some of the highest rates of asthma in the country.
Council President Pro Tempore Pedro Espinal, who introduced the resolution to change city zoning policies, in a statement described the amendment as a way to prevent more organizations from “attempting to ship more harmful toxins or dangerous chemicals into the city or the port.”
Espinal could not be reached for comment regarding how, if at all, the zoning ban might affect Sea 3’s plans. But it might be too late.
The company, which took over the property in 2019 as a cooling and storage site for overseas shipments of the flammable gas, has already filed a petition with state energy regulators asking to bypass the typical, year-long application process to expand its operations. Sea 3 Providence in its petition to the R.I. Energy Facility Siting Board said the expansion does not result in significant changes to the environment, or community health, safety or public welfare that would require a full review. The board heard oral arguments on the petition in July but has yet to make a decision.
The board’s decision on the petition for a $15 to $20 million expansion is separate from ay potential city zoning ban, according to Emma Rodvien, coordinator for the Energy Facility Siting Board.
And if the petition is denied, that also doesn’t close the door on the expansion. The company can file a full application with state regulators in which the city of Providence will be one of a host of local and state agencies asked for advisory opinions. A city ban on liquified propane gas storage would certainly be taken into consideration, but ultimately still as an advisory opinion with the final say resting with state regulators, Rodvien said.
Robert Azar, the city’s deputy director of planning and development, also pointed out during an Oct. 19 City Plan Commission meeting that a zoning ban would not force Sea 3 to shutter existing operations – including the 19 million gallon propane storage tank already there. And because an application for the expansion has also been filed with the city, which has jurisdiction over details of the site plans, the zoning change can’t carry much weight there, either, Azar said.
The City Plan Commission recommended against the citywide zoning ban, instead suggesting that liquified propane gas storage be subject to a special use permit in which individual projects would come before city zoning regulators who could attach specific conditions to approvals, including limits on pollution, truck traffic and other environmental, health and safety factors.
The recommendation is just that – an advisory opinion which the City Council can choose to ignore. The ordinance committee of the council will take public comment on the zoning amendment at a Nov. 3 meeting. The full council will vote on the proposal at a later date which has not been scheduled as of Monday.
Nicholas Hemond, an attorney with Darrow Everett LLP representing Sea 3, did not immediately respond to inquiries for comment.
Correction: This story has been corrected to update Emma Rodiven’s comments on how a city zoning change might affect the Energy Facility Siting Board’s pending decision on the declaratory order.
Nancy Lavin is a PBN staff writer. You may reach her at Lavin@PBN.com.