Rymes Plans Propane Facility Expansion
Lebanon Fire Chief Worries About Potential for Leak at Westboro Rail Yard
Rymes Propane and Oil is planning to expand its propane transfer facility at the Westboro Rail Yard. Lebanon Fire Chief Chris Christopoulos has raised safety concerns about the growth of natural gas use at area businesses and institutions. "From a hazard perspective, this is the one that keeps me up at night," Christopoulos told the city Planning Board last week. (Valley News - Ben Conarck) Purchase photo reprints »
West Lebanon — The possible expansion of a propane transfer facility in the Westboro Rail Yard has the city’s fire chief raising safety concerns about a potential “catastrophic” gas leak in the heart of West Lebanon.
“From a hazard perspective, this is the one that keeps me up at night,” Lebanon Fire Chief Chris Christopoulos said at a Planning Board meeting last week. “I’ve been doing this for 32 years, and I can’t say that about a lot of facilities in 32 years.”
The Rymes Propane and Oil facility, which has been in place since 2010, has largely flown under the radar of Lebanon planners and other city officials because it sits on state-owned property and isn’t subject to the same regulations as most property in Lebanon. After the fire chief’s presentation, however, Planning Board members began to discuss how to rein in a potential expansion, despite not having much, if any, oversight over the project.
“It seems to me that this falls through a lot of loopholes,” said Planning Board Vice Chairman Tim McNamara. “But ultimately … we have some political clout to say either we the city don’t think this belongs this close to downtown West Lebanon or we do, and I think we ought to exercise that discretion.”
Christopoulos raised his concerns during a briefing on how the fire department is handling hazardous materials in Lebanon, a discussion focused primarily on natural gas facilities — specifically one existing liquefied natural gas facility at Kleen Laundry on Foundry Street and an approved but yet-to-be-built compressed natural gas facility at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.
Ralph Young, the West Lebanon office manager for Rymes Propane and Oil, declined to comment on the site’s operations or plans for an expansion. Young said the site had passed inspection, but would not elaborate.
Christopoulos told the Planning Board last week that the propane company has plans to expand its facility into a more “permanent” state.
“Rymes has intentions of moving this facility across the cement pad closer to the roundabout building, with a hope of putting four 30,000-gallon storage tanks, two transloaders, and parallel spurs so they can offload product,” he said.
In an interview later in the week, Christopoulos said that, as it stands now, the propane facility is still in a “portable mode.” He added that he can’t dictate how much propane is stored there in terms of quantity, but said the facility’s permit with the fire department allows for up to 15 railcars carrying about 33,500 gallons of propane each, which is more than 500,000 gallons of propane in total.
In case of a leak, Christopoulos said, propane would linger in the heavily populated residential area that includes the Mount Lebanon School and the West Lebanon fire station.
Additionally, the chief said, he has not been able to enforce his preference that the railcars there are not parked underneath the bridge carrying traffic from South Main Street to Route 12A in West Lebanon. He said that the parking of the railcars there would complicate a fire department response to a potential gas leak.
Christopoulos said that a “catastrophic release” of the gas, such as a foot-wide puncture in a railcar that could be caused by an accident, would empty all the propane from a railcar in less than three minutes. He stressed that this was not a likely incident, but nonetheless a feasible one.
“This facility, it’s the sheer quantity that concerns me, it’s not as much about the material,” Christopoulos said. “And it’s a relatively unsecure area. There are a lot of vagrants wandering through there. (Rymes has) had their transloading trailer broken into at least once in the past three or four years.”
City officials are involved in negotiations with the state Department of Transportation, which controls the site, over how to find common ground on the issue. Lebanon officials have long hoped to create a recreational area at the contaminated rail yard, and even managed to clean up a small section on the north side of the yard in preparation of what may eventually be a park and boat launch.
The Westboro site was an active rail yard from 1847 until the 1970s, and then went vacant until the state of New Hampshire purchased the property from the Boston and Maine Railroad Co. It restored rail service under an operating agreement with the Claremont Concord Railroad company in 2000, according to a study conducted by Dartmouth College students. The Claremont Concord Railroad website states that the rail line links Claremont and Lebanon to Canada.
City Manager Greg Lewis said the propane facility at Westboro Rail Yard is “not the best, highest use” the city envisions for the area.
As for the expansion, he said, “It continues to be our present concern that (an expansion) not be pursued,” but cautioned that the city is trying to avoid getting into an “adversarial mode” with the state. Lewis said he has plans in place to have a meeting with state officials mid-July.
Patrick Herlihy, director of aeronautics, rail and transit for the DOT, said officials from his department met with city officials in April. In the department’s opinion, Herlihy said, Rymes Propane and Oil should go through the city’s regulatory process in pursuing an expansion, but it’s unclear whether city planners would have any enforcement authority.
Brian Lombard, railroad operations engineer at the state DOT, said the state signed a “memorandum of understanding” with the city in 2000 regarding development in the rail yard.
“Until we see what Rymes is proposing for the yard, it’s hard for us to say whether the city would have veto approval or not,” he said. “That depends on how extensive (the expansion) is. If it’s mostly just railroad-related, then the memorandum of understanding says the state can proceed.”
Shelley Hadfield, a consultant for the city of Lebanon who has worked on the city’s recreation plans for Westboro Rail Yard, said there have been discussions on the issues between the city and the state for about two decades.
Hadfield said the rail yard is contaminated with petroleum and asbestos. Nevertheless, the city has always envisioned some recreational use, or even private business use, along that stretch of the Connecticut River, despite all the issues there.
“It’s a beautiful stretch of the river and it would be a great location for some sort of public facility or public use,” she said.
But the makeover won’t come easily. City Councilor Bruce Bronner, who has worked with other city councilors on the Westboro Rail Yard issue for six years, said that the bank of the river at that area is too steep and the river current too quick for safe recreational use.
“It’s actually a dangerous section of water,” he said. “That being said, if it were cleared up, it could certainly be a beautiful section of water.”
At the meeting, McNamara and other Planning Board members seemed to be taken off guard by the chief’s presentation.
“I did not even know about what was going on in the rail yard here, which is really disturbing,” McNamara said.
“For the few shekels that the state is accepting for rent, it’s a heck of a risk, and I think the (City Council) should take some action.”
McNamara said the issue should be viewed in the context of a “risk-benefit analysis.
“The state could care less, but we’re taking the risk,” he said. “And there’s no benefit to Lebanon.”
Ben Conarck can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3213.