Fire Chief Outlines Potential Impact of Propane Explosion

Valley News Staff Writer
Friday, September 22, 2017

West Lebanon — Lebanon Fire Chief Chris Christopoulos has said before he loses sleep worrying about a potential catastrophe if a rail car carrying a full load of propane should explode while sitting in the Westboro Rail Yard.

At Wednesday night’s City Council meeting, he put a number on a potential “worst-case scenario” explosion — within a minute, he said, flames erupting from a single rail car carrying propane could reach 258 homes within a 1,560-foot perimeter around the site, with the fire and shrapnel proving “potentially lethal” for the 492 people living there.

“It isn’t a small area that we’re talking about in a catastrophic failure,” Christopoulos said. “It’s a fairly large area, but the other side of that is there are mechanisms in place to minimize that risk.”

In a wide-ranging discussion about the propane transfer facility operated by Rymes Propane & Oil, Christopoulos described what could happen if a rail car were to rupture, resulting in what’s called a boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion, or BLEVE.

Most of those incidents, he said, are the result of fire increasing the pressure inside rail cars, causing their relief values to fail catastrophically. Once a fire starts, a typical rail car is designed to last anywhere between 30 and 100 minutes before exploding, depending on the type of fire, Christopoulos said.

“Given the design of modern rail cars, we look at it as a worst case, but I don’t want to ever say ‘never’ because I don’t believe in that kind of world,” he said.

The Westboro Rail Yard and propane operations there have been under increased scrutiny since city officials became aware of a “blast zone” potentially hampering federally funded projects within West Lebanon.

Last year, Twin Pines Housing Trust abandoned plans to construct a 31-unit residential apartment building on Main Street, partially because an additional $1 million would be needed to blastproof the building.

The Lebanon Area Chamber of Commerce also sent a letter to Gov. Chris Sununu in April, calling the rail yard property an “eyesore” and requesting the state take action to clean it up. That letter was rebuffed, however, by the state Department of Transportation, which said it doesn’t have the funds for such an effort.

The most likely incident that would require firefighters to respond to the rail yard is a propane leak, Christopoulos said on Wednesday.

Most hazardous-material emergencies occur during transportation, he said, meaning it’s more likely a leak would occur as propane is transferred from rail cars to trucks or temporary tanks on-site.

If a leak were to occur, he said, the vapor would probably follow the terrain down toward the Connecticut River, according to Christopoulos. Because the yard is about 20 feet lower than Main Street, and propane is heavier than air, he estimated the fumes wouldn’t make it to the street.

Rymes Propane & Oil has operated an off-loading facility within the rail yard since the winter of 2010. The company leases land from the New England Central Railroad, which in turn has a 10-year lease with the state Department of Transportation, DOT spokesman Bill Boynton said.

The railroad itself is owned by Genesse & Wyoming Railroad, a Darien, Conn.-based railroad company that owns or leases 120 freight railroads around the world.

Christopoulos said the facility currently consists of three “trans-loaders,” portable equipment that offload propane from rail cars into highway trucks, delivery vehicles or on-site portable tanks. There are also two on-site storage tanks, each capable of holding roughly 12,000 gallons of fuel each, he said.

During the height of the heating season, Christopoulos estimates there are between 12 and 15 rail cars on the property holding up to 405,000 gallons of propane.

Christopoulos also said there are several safety precautions in place to prevent significant incidents.

Several BLEVEs in the 1970s resulted in greater safety protections on rail cars, he said, and the site is required to meet state fire protection codes, as well as management and risk guidelines set by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

The fire department also is required to receive training, along with an on-site emergency plan and Rymes training manuals, Christopoulos said.

There also are safety factors built into how propane is off loaded, Christopoulos said. Lebanon’s dispatch services are notified anytime the process starts or stops, he said, and Rymes staffers perform odor tests on every rail car, with the results sent to the fire department monthly.

However, Christopoulos and city officials lamented that there’s little local control in how the facility is operated. Because it’s on state land, he said, local land use boards have no say in how it’s run.

“When this facility came in, one of the things that we were kind of hamstrung in is that they were not subject to local site plan review,” he said. “It didn’t go to planning. It didn’t go to zoning. It went to my office for enforcement of the state fire code.”

“It would probably be a stretch for us to even enforce our local fire code because it sits on state property,” he added.

Christopoulos said he has a good relationship with John Rymes, the company’s vice president, but still would like to see greater input from city officials, a sentiment City Councilors agreed with.

“It’s been absolutely irresponsible of the New Hampshire DOT not to involve the community more fully in this. In fact, they’ve not involved us at all with the exception of the things they are required to do,” Assistant Mayor Tim McNamara said at the meeting Wednesday night.

Other than contacting the fire chief, he said, state officials didn’t hold any public meetings or reach out to the City Council before allowing the propane facility to begin operation.

“We have a state administration that can decide to move bears from Hanover to Pittsburg, that can unilaterally pull out a boat landing that’s been planned for (Lake) Sunapee for a couple of decades but they don’t step in when we’ve got a new propane facility literally right in the middle of our community,” McNamara said.

Councilors also expressed concern that the site could become permanent. Last year, the propane company took delivery of two tanks capable of holding 48,000 gallons of propane. They currently sit on a foundation in the yard, and Christopoulos thinks Rymes will apply to use them in the future.

John Rymes declined to comment on future plans for the yard when he was reached on Thursday.

However, the DOT officials would encourage the Concord-based company to go “through the city’s normal approval process” before proceeding to expand the site, Boynton, the DOT spokesman, said in an email on Thursday.

From January through July of this year, the railroad has paid $12,421 as part of its lease to the state, Boynton said, and part of that goes to the city yearly. In 2016, the city received a little over $4,000 in revenue from the yard, according to DOT records.

Still, some officials said they would rather see the site redeveloped, an idea that’s been circulating for nearly two decades.

“The Westboro yard is 13 acres of some of the most prime real estate in the entire city of Lebanon,” said City Councilor Karen Liot Hill during Wednesday’s meeting. “It sits on the banks of the Connecticut River, it is unbelievably beautiful and we have had studies done that talk about the highest and best use of that property.”

Although she didn’t know how much the state’s lease is worth, she said potential value of a redeveloped site could be higher.

Mayor Sue Prentiss also expressed her displeasure with the yard and propane operations. The Lebanon School District is also exempt from local land use regulations, she said, but still goes through city reviews as a “good partner.”

“We’re all shocked. We have a job to do to protect our citizens,” she said, adding Rymes, the state and governor’s office all need to be present for future discussions regarding the rail yard. “It’s not only what’s fair, it’s what’s right.”

It’s likely at least some discussions will take place with state officials. Executive Councilor Joe Kenney said on Thursday that he’s been involved in reaching out to the DOT.

The governor’s office has also been in touch with Prentiss and is “looking forward to setting up a site visit with our office and interested stakeholders in the near future,” according to Benjamin Vihstadt, Sununu’s spokesman.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.