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Lebanon loses bid to increase safety measures at Westboro Rail Yard

  • A Rymes Propane and Oil propane truck is parked in the Westboro Rail Yard on Tuesday, June 27, 2017, as seen from a parking lot off Route 12A. Rymes uses part of the rail yard as a depot. The Lebanon Area Chamber of Commerce wants the state-owned rail facility, which it called an "eyesore," to be cleaned up. (Valley News - Jovelle Tamayo) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 10, 2019

WEST LEBANON — The city’s attempts to impose additional security measures at the Westboro Rail Yard appear to have failed after state regulators declined this week to require the improvements as part of a pending lease for the property.

Officials at the New Hampshire Department of Transportation told a delegation of city leaders and Executive Councilor Mike Cryans, D-Hanover, on Tuesday they would not require Rymes Propane & Oil to mound, or bury above ground, a pair of propane tanks at the West Lebanon site, according to City Manager Shaun Mulholland.

The officials, who included DOT Commissioner Victoria Sheehan, also were noncommittal on the city’s recommendation to install an advanced fire warning system in the rail yard or require Rymes to follow municipal land use regulations, he said.

“They only said they would ask for Rymes to be a good neighbor,” said Mulholland, who was present at the meeting in Concord.

The DOT said it couldn’t impose the city’s safety measures because they went beyond existing fire codes and federal regulations, said Lebanon Mayor Tim McNamara. Their implementation could be challenged before the federal Surface Transportation Board, which governs rail operations in the U.S., he said.

“The state seems to feel they have very little  control,” said McNamara, who also was present at the meeting. “The (STB) rules preempt what they can require, (and) they feel like they don’t have a lot of leeway.”

DOT spokesman Bill Boynton declined to comment on the meeting on Wednesday.

The city, which opposes Rymes’ off-loading facility, made its recommendations in an attempt to increase fire safety at the historic rail yard ahead of a March 28 meeting, where members of the state’s Council on Resources and Development, or CORD, were expected to discuss a proposed lease with Rymes.

The fuel company operates on a 65,100-square-foot section of the rail yard under a temporary use agreement signed with the DOT on June 11 last year. That agreement, which expires on May 31, required Rymes to pay a total of $400 in preparation and administrative fees to the state, according to Boynton.

He said the state received a $900 check from Rymes in June 2018. That also covered the $500 fee for the ongoing lease process, which could see the company continue at the yard for another five to 25 years.

However, the DOT asked to withdraw the lease application a day before the March 28 meeting.

The council is the first step in a process state departments use to dispose of surplus property. But when the Attorney General’s Office began its review of the lease, it found the site wasn’t surplus at all, and it is needed to support rail operations in West Lebanon, said Christina Wilson, an attorney with the office.

She said it’s not yet known what process the lease will go through now, as discussions between Rymes, the DOT and attorneys continue.

While Rymes in 2017 made a preliminary offer to bury the tanks, it’s unclear whether the company will follow through on that or any other safety upgrades recommended by the city.

John Rymes, the company’s vice president, declined to comment on the matter in an email on Wednesday.

However, Cryans was optimistic that a compromise can be reached with Rymes. Proper fire protection and warning systems don’t just benefit West Lebanon but also the company’s equipment and employees in the city, he said.

“Sometimes you don’t hear exactly what you want to hear, but I don’t think it’s a closed door,” he said.

Aside from Tuesday’s meeting, it’s unlikely Lebanon or any other group will have input into how the lease is crafted until it appears before the Executive Council.

“We won’t get any say in the process,” Mulholland said. “That’s quite clear, there’s no public participation piece.”

And the state isn’t required to give the city advanced notification of the lease, he said.

Rep. Richard Abel, D-Lebanon, sponsored a bill this year that would have required the state to notify a municipality 15 days before railroad property within its boundaries is sold, leased or transferred to another entity. But that legislation was killed by a voice vote in the House last month, after some lawmakers and industry officials worried provisions would preempt federal rail authority.

Rep. Laurel Stavis, D-Lebanon, declined to comment on Tuesday’s meeting but said the city’s Statehouse delegation will continue to advocate for safety improvements within the rail yard.

“We’re following this with great interest and have complete faith in our city officials that they will do what has to be done,” she said in a phone interview.

Lebanon lawmakers successfully lobbied in recent months to keep a $570,000 cleanup of the Westboro Rail Yard in the House’s proposed budget, which will go up for a full vote on Thursday before moving on to the Senate.

The effort is one of three that survived cuts to Gov. Chris Sununu’s spending plan, which proposed spending $52 million on standalone infrastructure projects across the state.

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

Correction

The Washington, D.C.-based Surface Transportation Board is charged with regulating railroad matters in the United States. An earlier version of this story misidentified the federal agency.