City finalizing agreement with NH on contamination at former rail yard in West Lebanon

Mike Lemieux, owner of Pine Hill Construction, demolishes the sandhouse at the historic Westboro Rail Yard in Lebanon, N.H., on Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021. Once the property is cleaned up city officials hope to lease the land from the New Hampshire Department of Transportation in order to turn it into a park. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Mike Lemieux, owner of Pine Hill Construction, demolishes the sandhouse at the historic Westboro Rail Yard in Lebanon, N.H., on Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021. Once the property is cleaned up city officials hope to lease the land from the New Hampshire Department of Transportation in order to turn it into a park. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Alex Driehaus

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 06-01-2023 3:11 PM

Valley News Staff Writer

WEST LEBANON — The completion of an environmental assessment at the former Westboro Rail Yard moves the city closer to acquiring nearly 7 acres of state-owned land for creation a riverfront park.

The study is a crucial step toward finalizing an agreement for the property between state and city officials. Under this agreement, the state would sell 6.7 acres of former railway property along the Connecticut River to the city for recreational use.

According to a tentative agreement reached last fall, the state would be responsible for removing existing hazardous contaminants, except for any contamination caused by the city’s actions. Future contamination would be the responsibility of the city. City officials recently submitted a formal request to state officials, urging them to uphold the tentative agreement. 

“We are much closer to ironing out the details of the property transfer however some issues are still unresolved,” City Manager Shaun Mulholland said. “We are cautiously optimistic that we will be able to complete the property transfer in 2024. I want to be careful by lowering expectations on this issue. This has gone on for so long.”  

City requests to acquire the Westboro land date back to the late 1990s, Mulholland said. The first major milestone toward an agreement came in 2021, when the city and state collaborated to demolish and remove several deteriorating structures in the rail yard, including the bunkhouse, roundhouse, sandhouse and chimney. 

Now rather than removing contaminants from the site, the environmental assessment, conducted by engineering firm Credere Associates of Westbrook, Maine, recommends covering the contaminated soil at the park site with clean soil, asphalt or other “appropriate barriers” to prevent direct exposure to the contaminants.

The purpose of such a clean-up provision is to free the city from responsibility should a remediation be required in the future, according to Mulholland.

In an area where soil was tested, results showed a concentration of TPH, or total petroleum hydrocarbons, of more than double the state’s allowable soil standard of 10,000 mg per kg.

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This contamination, the study said, was likely the result of oil spillage and “may warrant additional investigation or notification to the NHDES (New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services).” Under the tentative agreement it would be the state’s responsibility to conduct that investigation and clean-up. 

Between 1974 and the early 2000s, the property was inspected after an oily sheen was observed leaking from the site into the Connecticut River, according to the study. The cause of the leakage was a ruptured oil tank located near the area occupied by the former roundhouse. 

“Numerous” monitoring wells have been installed and several thousand gallons of free diesel product, or diesel product that is still in its original form, have been recovered. Free product still persists in two of the monitoring well. 

The recent study also found low concentrations of PAHs, or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, a class of chemicals that occur naturally in fossil fuels such as coal, crude oil and gasoline.

These chemicals “are common in areas historically used for railroads” and “would not warrant additional investigation,” the report stated.

Groundwater samples were found to contain arsenic levels exceeding the state’s allowable standards of 5 micrograms per liter.

City and state officials, including Mulholland, said the study’s findings were not surprising for a 150-year-old railroad property.

“This is an old rail yard and it’s a contaminated piece of property,” said Peg Bastien, supervisor of the petroleum remediation division at NHDES.

The acquisition of the Westboro land is a major piece of an action plan drafted in 2021 by the West Lebanon Revitalization Advisory Committee, a group organized to study and recommend ways to spur economic development and renewal of the area’s Main Street corridor. The city has a conceptual plan for a 3-acre park that includes a recreation field and an expandable the trail network.

There are still a few steps left to go in the transaction, including that the city and the state must still negotiate a sale purchase price. 

The state typically bases its price upon the land’s appraisal and a fair market value, though the state sometimes negotiates a reduced sale price should the land’s intended use provide a benefit to the state or a municipality, such as public recreation.

Once finalized, the agreement will need approval from several governing bodies, including the City Council; the New Hampshire Council on Resources and Development; the Long-Range Capital Planning and Utilization Committee, a House legislative group; the Governor’s Office and the Executive Council.

Mulholland said that construction of the park will likely occur after the replacement and widening of what’s know as the Dry Bridge. Just south of Seminary Hill, the short span over railroad tracks is on the state’s red-list of bridges that are in poor condition.

The Dry Bridge project is scheduled to begin construction in Spring 2024 and to be completed by Fall 2025.

Patrick Adrian may be reached at padrian@vnews.com or at 603-727-3216.