What’s the Big Deal About the Effingham Gas Station?

Freedom—November 1, 2021—Here is the Meena (Boyle’s Market) story in a nutshell. The Effingham convenience store (it was abandoned as a gas station in 2015, and its tanks removed) was sold last year to a buyer who wanted to pump gas again. This spring the ZBA unanimously approved his application for a special exception and sent it to the Planning Board.

The Planning Board sent the application back to the ZBA because gas stations are prohibited in the Groundwater Protection District, where the business is located. The applicant asked the ZBA for relief from the restriction, but instead of waiting for approval, he started construction.

Underground tanks and piping were installed before the code enforcement officer noticed the illegal activity and issued a cease-and-desist order. But no fine was assessed, and the tanks were back-filled and stayed in the ground.

In August, the ZBA approved a variance for a gas station despite the site being in the drinking water protection area. Abutters and environmental groups, including ours, appealed the decision as contrary to the ordinance and contrary to the environmental impact data presented at the hearings. The ZBA denied the appeal, and the issue is now in state court. This Thursday, the Planning Board will start reviewing the applicant’s site plan.

There’s a lot to unpack in this case, but most of the public comments we’ve received amount to “So, what’s the big deal?” There used to be a gas station there. New tanks are better than old tanks. Effingham needs the tax revenue, and so forth.

All of which miss the point. While the Meena case features a gas station, it’s not about a gas station. It’s about the water.

More than a decade ago, volunteers in Effingham, Ossipee and Freedom worked tirelessly to create public awareness of the term “stratified drift aquifer” and secure protections for the drinking water it provides to seven towns in our region, where up to 80% of homes rely on private wells.

In 2011, Effingham voters approved a Groundwater Protection Ordinance and established a Groundwater Protection District, an area in which the fragility of the aquifer requires that water protection be prioritized over land uses that might be permitted elsewhere. The former Boyle’s property is in that district, and gas stations are among the uses prohibited there.

But it’s not just gas stations. Property owners in the Groundwater Protection District are prohibited from starting a solid waste landfill, a dry-cleaning facility, a race track, a junkyard and other land uses that pose a high risk of spills and leaks of toxic material that can find their way into the groundwater and be spread far and wide by the highly transmissive aquifer.

If you think fears of contamination are far-fetched, consider the currently unoccupied site over the aquifer at the junction of Routes 16 and 41 in West Ossipee. Home to a series of oil- and gas-related businesses, the site tested positive in the 1990s for a plume of groundwater contaminated by gasoline byproducts. To this day, the site is unremediated, and annual tests are required for neighboring property owners to be sure their well water is safe to drink.

How about the argument that today’s underground gas tanks are “fail-proof”? In addition to “fail-proof” being a nonsense marketing term, underground tanks are only part of the potential threat. Spills and accidents at gas pump islands are a routine hazard of the business that can result in groundwater contamination. The DES OneStop database lists nine Carroll County gas station incidents in which more than ten gallons of fuel were spilled, including a 2020 spill in Bartlett that released 45 gallons.

As we said earlier, there’s a lot to unpack in the ZBA’s actions in this matter. How could the board have approved the gas station application in March without a single mention of the long-standing groundwater protection ordinance that at least two current ZBA members helped establish?

Once the omission was revealed by the Planning Board, what was the ZBA’s reasoning in denying regional impact status for an application requesting a prohibited, risky use on the border of Ossipee, in a highly transmissible section of the aquifer adjacent to conservation land, residential wells, Phillips Brook, and Leavitt Bay, which is bordered by three towns?

Despite the gravity of what the applicant was requesting—relief from a major town environmental regulation approved by voters—why did the ZBA fail to seek an independent third-party review of the application to help determine its completeness and potential environmental impact?

We don’t know the answers to these questions, but we do know that the Meena case is not really just about a gas station. It’s about water. Which means it’s about all of us who count on town officials to uphold established, voter-approved environmental protections for the Ossipee Aquifer, the irreplaceable primary source of drinking water for the region.

That’s our opinion. The Planning Board meetings on the gas station are where you can make your opinion heard. They start this Thursday, November 4, at 6:30 p.m. in Effingham Town Hall.

15 Comments

  1. Richard 4 weeks ago November 2, 2021

    The very answer to this is found in the second paragraph. The new owner did not wait for the final approval of his application. He took it upon himself to begin the new construction and installation of the gas station infrastructure. Sorry to say that it is now up to the courts to decide the outcome. The people have already decided that they wanted to protect their water supply.

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  2. Bill Elliott 4 weeks ago November 2, 2021

    Well written article by David Smith. I agree with Richards comment.

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  3. Foley Bart 4 weeks ago November 2, 2021

    How is it possible to have underground tanks installed with no inspections. At the very least if this gets approved, the tanks and plumbing should be removed so that proper installation can be verified of the so called “fail safe” tanks.

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    • Tim 2 weeks ago November 18, 2021

      NHDES has inspected the Underground Storage Tank and piping installation, prior to backfilling. However the owner proceeded with installing the tanks and piping without first obtaining the required approvals from Both the Zoning Board and Planning Board, as well as Town Permits. As a result, the owner was issued a cease and desist order for any addional construction.
      Additionally, the tank and piping installation, (while their design is current state of the art), are not spill proof and leak proof. NH DES has documented numerous spills in our area over the past several years, some customer generated, some system failures.

  4. Citizen 4 weeks ago November 2, 2021

    All inspections come from the state at DES. DES is the same department that helps with Ground water protection. DES has said that their approval of design and install is sufficient for a ground water protection district. A lot has changed since 2011 in gas station and spill mitigation. There are many gas stations in the ground water protection district such as the new Irving in Ossipee. Effingham doesn’t have a code officer they have a zoning officer way different.

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  5. Bill 4 weeks ago November 2, 2021

    Why wasn’t a fine imposed. If I did something illegal I’d be fined for it. And I guess the ordinance is worth less than the paper it’s written on

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    • Phil 4 weeks ago November 2, 2021

      Well said. If the police can break up a minor fireworks display on a major holiday with the threat of fines, wouldn’t this warrant the actual issuance of a fine?

  6. Zippy 4 weeks ago November 2, 2021

    If the ZBA allows this, what will happen to the rest of the neighboring towns. You don’t start a project without proper permits. This alone should be disqualification.

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  7. Atony 4 weeks ago November 2, 2021

    You say “it’s about the water” but it sounds more like it’s about control. That location has been pumping gas for decades without incident. To be dismissive of the positive impact a functioning convenient store and gas station has on the area is, in my opinion, reckless at best. I notice no mention of Abbotts just down the road. Apparently that old and outdated gas station has no impact on groundwater what so ever…right?
    The latest regulations for UST design provides significant protection for our groundwater and environment. I live in the area and don’t believe the hype about excessive risk posed by a new and updated station. There is greater risk driving down 16 than there is in our water being contaminated to the point of harm. There are 150,000+ UST nationally and less than 6 % will spur a detectable leak. The newer tanks, depending on the design will detect and notify of a leak with very little threat to the environment. There will always be accidents but statistically the risk is low. Let the station open under the appropriate safety and environmental protocols and let’s stop the excessive control over the small business owners.

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  8. Steve Foley 4 weeks ago November 2, 2021

    The only way someone or business would move ahead without proper, verifiable oversight and approval is from a wink and a nod, a sense of self entitlement, or the one thing which sets the world in motion, money. This day and age, given the discoveries in environmental damages and those yet to be discovered, this project needs to be undone, fines levied and jail time. A certain recipe deterring a repeat.
    Thank you, David. You are always a voice of reason in the valley.

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    • Atony 4 weeks ago November 2, 2021

      Your statement is littered with nothing more than speculation and sounds like what I would expect in todays climate. The only real aim seems to be to “weaponize” the government so as to punish and bring to submission the little guy.

  9. John hood 4 weeks ago November 2, 2021

    there are 9 comments that they all tell the same story and if u do not under stand that we should talk . who ever bought the former gas station has no respect for the towns , the people that own property in and around the lake , a lot of the property owners have there property in there family’s going back a long way , one mayor gas spill would trash the hole economy of all the property’s the bottom line if he or she respected us and the town he would of done it the right way ,, just big money stepping on the little guy , please say NO

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    • Atony 4 weeks ago November 3, 2021

      Really had to chuckle at this comment.
      You are correct there are and have been properties “in the family’s going back a long time”. However many of those properties were sold because of the excessive property assessments being levied by the town. Many could just not afford to pay their property taxes. It took a collective class action attempt to just try and get the property assessments in line with market conditions.
      At this point the town has done more to disrespect the residents than a small station ever could.

  10. John hood 4 weeks ago November 2, 2021

    one mayor gas spill would trash the hole economy of all the property’s the bottom line if he or she respected us and the town he would of done it the right way ,, just big money stepping on the little guy , please say NO

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  11. TommyJ 1 week ago November 19, 2021

    …and one major atomic bomb and we are all done for but we don’t live our lives based on that unlikely event. If we did we would all be hunkered down in underground bunkers. Basing a decision on a hypothetical or an unlikely potential is at best unrealistic and in this case seems like a lot of hype.
    The amount of negativity over this gas station/convenient store is remarkable. It sounds like something more is at play here. Just doesn’t make sense.
    Where was all this hype and concern prior to Boyles removing the tanks??

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