Westboro Rail Yard Sees Offer for Safety Measures

  • 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.

Valley News Staff Writer
Friday, December 22, 2017

West Lebanon — The fuel company operating out of the Westboro Rail Yard may bury two storage tanks that would hold almost 100,000 gallons of propane in an apparent effort to alleviate city officials’ longstanding safety concerns at the West Lebanon site.

Representatives of Rymes Propane & Oil made a preliminary offer to bury the tanks during a meeting last week in City Hall with city councilors, state transportation officials and Lebanon’s Statehouse delegation, according to Lebanon Fire Chief Chris Christopoulos, who also was present.

The proposal isn’t set in stone yet, Christopoulos said on Thursday. Talks surrounding the rail yard are in the early stages, he said, adding the company might also encounter trouble digging at the property, which is known to contain contaminated soil and is near the Connecticut River.

Although Rymes has had an off-loading facility at the downtown West Lebanon site for nearly 8 years, the operation has drawn recent scrutiny from city officials, who worry the surrounding neighborhood could be in danger if a fire causes an explosion.

Business leaders and planners also have expressed worries that the potential “blast zone” around the site could make redevelopment in the business district more difficult and costly.

In September, Christopoulos briefed the City Council on a “worst-case scenario” at the rail yard, where he estimated the shrapnel and fire from the explosion of a single propane rail car could prove “potentially lethal” for the 492 people living within a 1,560-foot radius.

While the fire chief said such a scenario is very unlikely, and systems are in place to prevent an explosion at the yard, city councilors appeared alarmed by the chief’s report and the city’s lack of resources to further regulate Rymes’ operations. Since the rail yard is state property, Christopoulos is only allowed to enforce state fire regulations at the site, so Rymes wasn’t required to seek Planning Board approval.

Rymes leases its portion of the property through the New England Central Railroad, which in turn has a 10-year lease with the New Hampshire Department of Transportation. The rail company was purchased in 2015 by the Connecticut-based Genesse & Wyoming Railroad.

Shortly after Christopoulos delivered his report, city officials began lobbying the governor’s office to help facilitate talks with Rymes and other stakeholders. Last week’s meeting was the first of what some hope will be a wide-ranging discussion.

“There’s always potential for animosity in a situation like that, but I think everyone was looking out for the best solution and none of that animosity showed up,” City Councilor Jim Winny, who represents West Lebanon, said of the meeting.

Winny also confirmed that Rymes made an offer to bury its tanks. However, there were no concrete decisions, he said, adding all parties are expecting to continue talks in the new year.

“I am sort of cautiously optimistic,” Winny said. “I think something can get sorted out if we don’t lose momentum and get bogged down.”

Mayor Sue Prentiss also spoke highly of the meeting during Wednesday night’s City Council meeting.

“We did make some progress in moving more toward an understanding of what can and cannot happen there,” she told fellow councilors.

Messages left for John Rymes on Thursday were not returned.

Bill Boynton, a DOT spokesman, also confirmed on Thursday that the company made an offer to bury its tanks.

The propane company currently uses three portable pieces of equipment to offload fuel from rail cars onto highway trucks, delivery vehicles and two on-site tanks. During the height of the heating season, there usually are between 12 and 15 rail cars on the property containing up to 405,000 gallons of propane, Christopoulos said in September.

Rymes also plans to expand at the site. It purchased two larger, permanent storage tanks and moved them to West Lebanon in 2016. Both are capable of holding 48,000 gallons of propane. Those two tanks are the likely candidates for burial, Christopoulos said, adding they’re not currently in use and the city hasn’t yet received any notification of when Rymes plans to begin using them.

There are two options for burying the tanks, he said: the company could dig and place them underground or it could build an above-ground mound that would surround the tanks.

Both would help prevent fire from reaching the tanks, reducing the chances of an explosion, Christopoulos said.

Rob Taylor, executive director of the Lebanon Area Chamber of Commerce, said he applauds the ongoing talks to improve safety at the site. However, he hopes some progress will be made to address the dilapidated buildings at the rail yard, which has been in existence since the 19th century.

Taylor sent a letter to Gov. Chris Sununu in April, calling the property an “eyesore” and requesting state aid in cleaning it up. But he was rebuffed by the DOT, which said there are no funds for such an effort.

“It’s right in the center of the Upper Valley, at the very heart,” Taylor said on Thursday. “I would still love to see the state and city get together to take care of the debilitated buildings that are there.”

Future meetings between Rymes, the state and city officials are expected in March.

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