Questions raised about legality, safety of fuel tanks and standing fuel trucks at Great Barrington airport

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By Wednesday, Dec 13 News  4 Comments
Terry Cowgill
A pair of avgas tanker trucks sit next to the office building at the airport. The trucks are reportedly being used to refuel planes until new underground tanks can be installed. Questions have been raised about whether airport officials brought them in legally.

Great Barrington — Call it the storm after the calm after the storm. But there could be more trouble brewing for the Great Barrington Airport.

At a Monday meeting of the Great Barrington Selectboard, nearby residents and some members of the board expressed concern about the airport’s plans to install a new underground fuel tank and some uncertainty ensued over whether the new unit required approval from the town.

Over the last couple of years, the airport has been the subject of sometimes-intense controversy, most recently over its plans to add three new hangars, a move that generated strong opposition during hearings for a special permit earlier this year.

Seekonk Road resident Joseph Krummel thinks there are zoning violations at the airport and made his case to the Great Barrington Selectboard Monday night. Photo: Terry Cowgill

But in a unusual move, airport officials abandoned those plans in July before they could be voted on by town officials, even though the airport had already spent considerable sums of money on lawyers and consultants.

As part of the now-abandoned agreement, the airport had offered to replace the underground tanks with above-ground tanks in deference to neighbors and others concerned about the property’s location near a drinking-water source in an aquifer-protection zone next to the Green River.

Now that it is unbound by the conditions of a special permit that was never obtained, the airport has evidently changed its mind and decided to replace the underground tanks, which are typically replaced every 20 years, with a new underground tank.

The current controversy centers on whether the airport needs a special permit in order to proceed with the tank replacement. Also of concern is the system of fuel distribution while the old tanks are being replaced. Neighbors say a pair of fuel trucks parked near the runway are currently functioning as aviation fuel tanks until the new tanks are installed and functioning, creating a situation they say is unsafe and environmentally questionable.

“In late October after they removed the underground tanks, they showed up with two avgas trucks,” Seekonk Road resident Joseph Krummel told the board, referring to the trade name for aviation fuel. “They parked on the tarmac there by the old disabled pump. There was no containment system, no fire suppression, no barriers to keep planes from running into them. There are two trucks with maybe a couple thousand gallons of avgas sitting there.”

Krummel, who in a previous meeting called airport officials “clowns,” sent a letter in October to building inspector Edwin May detailing what he said were “serious violations” regarding the tanker trucks.

May responded formally with a letter dated about three weeks later. He essentially said he did not see “any ongoing unlawful use of the property,” in part because the property is a “pre-existing nonconforming use.”

Great Barrington Selectman Ed Abrahams. Photo: David Scribner

The airport on Egremont Plain Road was built before the town established its first zoning code in 1931: It is indeed a pre-existing nonconforming use. But an expansion of a nonconforming use typically requires a special permit from the Great Barrington Zoning Board of Appeals or, in some cases, from the selectboard itself.

Both Krummel, Selectman Ed Abrahams and Great Barrington Planning Board alternate member Pedro Pachano cited specific portions of the town zoning code in support of their contention that a special permit is needed. Click here to see the town’s current zoning bylaw (it’s 160 pages long, so happy reading).

They cited Section 9.2.12 as triggering the requirement of a special permit because the project includes the “alteration or enlargement of existing uses that do not conform” with the water quality protection overlay district and the “handling of toxic or hazardous materials in quantities greater than those associated with normal household use.”

Also cited was a section on underground tanks, 9.2.11, which, Pachano said, “implies that anyone having anything do with underground storage tanks must apply for special permit.”

“My immediate concern is the [fuel] trucks,” Abrahams said. “Any fuel storage has to have 110-percent containment under it. How that’s okay, I don’t understand. If something happens, there nothing between that truck and the ground.”

“My concern is we have one drinking water source, and if you have one accident that’s it,” added Krummel. “The publicity will shut down the town, we will lose our tourism — not to mention we’re going to have gasoline in our drinking water.”

A tank and containers sit on the side of the hangar at the Walter J. Koladza Airport in Great Barrington on Wednesday morning. Since airport officials declined to comment, it is unknown if the tank will replace the old one that has been removed. The tank has the brand name ‘Containment Solutions’ printed on it. One of the three containers in front of it has a flammable warning sign and is manufactured by Liquitote, a brand of stainless steel bulk containers. Photo: Terry Cowgill

The Edge reached out to airport officials for comment. Joe Solan, son of airport co-owner Richard Solan, declined to comment. He referred questions to other airport officials, none of whom were available Wednesday afternoon.

After listening to the three men, selectboard Chairman Sean Stanton said it sounded to him like the airport needed a special permit. Krummel said it was his understanding that, for the tank replacement, the airport was only engaged in a permitting process with the state Department of Environmental Protection and not through the town.

Abrahams said he has heard of cases in the state in which underground tanks were ordered removed because they were not installed according to proper procedure.

“We’d love to avoid that,” he said. “Why don’t we let them know that we expect them to come here?”

“It’s important for the board to express what its directions are,” town manager Jennifer Tabakin explained. “If the board wants to give advice, that’s your prerogative.”

Percussionist and Pumpkin Hill Road resident James Weber, right, blows a whistle during a June meeting of the Great Barrington Selectboard to simulate what he said is an unacceptable level of noise caused by planes taking off and landing near his house. An unidentified audience member, left, calls for Weber’s removal from the selectmen’s meeting room. Photo courtesy Community Television for the Southern Berkshires

Stanton suggested Tabakin return to next Monday’s meeting with information on “whether any change within the water quality protection overlay zone requires a special permit.” His colleagues all agreed.

In addition to airing environmental concerns, nearby residents have long complained of noise emanating from the airport, especially on weekends when recreational pilots hit the skies.

At one hearing in June, percussionist and Pumpkin Hill Road resident James Weber said he was frustrated with the noise of the planes and, detecting a lack of sympathy, took out a whistle and blew it as loud as he could to simulate the decibel levels of the “dozens and dozens of planes that fly over my property” on Sundays.

After five seconds of ear-splitting blowing, Weber, a founding percussionist and leader of the Berkshire Bateria, promptly left the selectmen’s meeting room, leaving dozens of stunned officials and audience members in his wake.

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4 Comments   Add Comment

  1. John says:

    Wonder which wealthy neighbor is behind the new attack?

    Their argument would therefore suggest every fuel truck driving down route 7 is illegal(no fuel containment), that all refueling operations at Boston Logan are illegal, and that the fuel truck going to your house is illegal.
    It would appear that certain neighbors still want to shut the airport down and build luxury hotels there…but wait… how much fuel is stored to heat a luxury hotel and spa?

    1. Dan says:

      It is troubling to see this host of citizenry air their regret from buying a home next to an airport and requisite operations. These petulant attacks against a compliant and responsible business reek of self interest. The latest objection regarding water quality is a notable, however it should be pointed out that the combined volume of #2 heating fuel stored in neighboring less regulated and rarely inspected tanks pose greater risk to the aquifer than cargo tanks that are strictly regulated by State and Federal law, and are re-certified biennially.

  2. William and Linda Owens says:

    Good point.

  3. Mark Silver says:

    There’s a difference between fuel storage and fuel delivery. It isn’t radical to want to protect our drinking water. Think for a moment about what happens if there’s an accident with those trucks.

    I’m not a neighbor and I’m not trying to shut down the airport. I just want drinkable water. This town only has one source of water.

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