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Editorial: Lebanon railroaded on Westboro

  • Rymes Propane & Oil in West Lebanon, N.H., on Dec. 21, 2017.The company is considering burying propane tanks at the Westboro Rail Yard, in an effort to alleviate safety concerns at the West Lebanon site. Representatives with the company announced they would be exploring that option during a meeting with city and state officials last week, according to city officials who were present. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.


Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Welcome to New Hampshire, the “live free or die” state, where the light hand of state government allows individuals and communities to shape their own destinies as they see fit.

Except when it doesn’t, which is surprisingly often.

A case in point is the stiff-arm administered by the New Hampshire Department of Transportation last week to Lebanon officials seeking to have a few common-sense safety measures inserted into the pending renewal of a lease of a portion of the historic, state-owned Westboro Rail Yard to Rymes Propane & Oil, which runs a propane off-loading facility on a 65,000-square-foot parcel there.

As staff writer Tim Camerato has reported, the city wants the company to be required to mound — that is, bury above ground — two large propane tanks to minimize the risk of catastrophic fire and explosion, to install an advanced fire warning system and to comply with municipal land use regulations.

Impossible, says the DOT, because to do so would run afoul of federal regulations administered by the Surface Transportation Board, which oversees rail operations in the United States. “The state seems to feel they have very little control,” Mayor Tim McNamara told Camerato. “The (STB) rules preempt what they can require, (and) they feel like they don’t have a lot of leeway.”

And as lease negotiations continue between the DOT and Rymes, the city won’t have a seat at the table. “We won’t get any say in the process,” City Manager Shaun Mulholland said. “That’s quite clear; there’s no public participation piece.”

So it would appear that a key parcel of land in the heart of West Lebanon is going to be leased to a for-profit company without any local input or consultation as to safety, or anything else.

Is this any way to run a railroad?

Apparently, it is standard operating procedure. City Councilor Clifton Below told a legislative hearing in January that although Rymes has operated at the site for a number of years, no one in city government besides the fire chief was ever notified about the original lease. “There was no notification whatsoever to the city manager, the City Council. It just happened,” said Below, who is a former state senator.

Maybe the feds have a no-notification rule on the books, too.

In any case, we wonder why the state is not free to negotiate any terms it pleases when it leases state property to a private entity. If the company objects to the terms of a new lease, it need not accept them and need not continue to operate at Westboro yard. Or if the DOT is actually preempted from requiring safety measures, the department could itself use the lease proceeds to, for example, install an advanced fire warning system.

Of course, once the negotiations have concluded, the lease will have to be approved by the Executive Council before it can go into effect. Those councilors are elected to protect and further the interests of their constituents, as well as the state as a whole, when they exercise their lease-approval function. If city officials are frozen out of the negotiations, they ought to make every effort to ensure that the council is thoroughly acquainted with the issues involved and the city’s perspective on them.

Correction

The Washington, D.C.-based Surface Transportation Board is charged with regulating railroad matters in the United States. A story in the April 11 Valley News and an earlier version of this editorial misidentified the federal agency.