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January 26, 2015

Islanders and propane haulers grapple with tighter ferry restrictions

PHOTo / William Trevaskis
PHOTo / William Trevaskis
Joe Stone, town administrator for the island of North Haven, says island communities were not warned of tighter regulations on propane transportation.

Stricter oversight on transporting bottled propane has upset ferry operators and some island businesses.

The issue first came up in November. U.S. Coast Guard officials ordered vessels in the Maine State Ferry Service to stop transporting propane and passengers simultaneously, saying propane carried in bulk would have to be transported separately, either on a private vessel or by privately contracting with the ferry to run at off-hours.

"The initial problem was that there was no forewarning for either Vinalhaven or North Haven," says Joe Stone, town administrator for the island of North Haven.

Without natural gas lines, island residents rely on propane as fuel to run stoves, furnaces and water heaters.

The tighter oversight may have resulted from efforts by private gas suppliers to carry larger volumes. "What happened was there was concern from some of the islands that they wanted to start hauling propane in bulk on a 'bobtail' truck," says Dan McNichol, port captain for the state of Maine.

He says people from Swans Island and Vinalhaven wrote to the federal Department of Transportation asking for clarification on how much propane can be carried on Maine State Ferry Service vessels that are also hauling people.

"It must have gotten forwarded to the Coast Guard. They looked at the letter and determined that we weren't supposed to haul propane at all," McNichol says.

Coast Guard Commander John Humpage says Coast Guard guidelines prohibit the transportation of passengers and propane at the same time, except for personnel directly involved with the transport, such as a driver and an assistant.

McNichol says the Coast Guard actions effectively supersede the DOT certification many operators thought was enough.

Rex Crockett, who transports bottled propane to sell through his plumbing business on North Haven, was forced to wait eight days before he was allowed to bring his propane truck on the boat.

"The absence of notice, combined with weather-related trip cancellations, was a major hardship for Rex, who kept getting bumped from day to day. He had run out of propane completely," Stone says.

Crocket adds,"I've been hauling it in my own truck for almost 20 years and never had an ounce of trouble."

North Haven and Swans Island have enlisted assistance from Maine's congressional delegations, and the Coast Guard granted a temporary solution on Nov. 24, maintaining a buffer zone around propane trucks on ferries and limiting passengers to the number of seats available in the cabin.

Humpage says the Coast Guard is evaluating concerns of all involved parties.

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