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N.H. pulls Rymes proposal for Westboro Rail Yard



Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, March 28, 2019

CONCORD — Citing procedural grounds, the state Department of Transportation on Wednesday abruptly withdrew plans to continue leasing a portion of the Westboro Rail Yard to Rymes Propane & Oil.

The move, which took city officials by surprise, headed off — at least temporarily — a public review of a new lease.

If approved, the proposal would have allowed Rymes to keep off-loading and storing propane in West Lebanon for another five to 25 years.

The New Hampshire Council on Resources and Development, a 12-member body of state agency leaders, planned to discuss the lease on Thursday morning, but members adjourned after only four minutes.

Chairman Jared Chicoine told the group that DOT officials “requested that we withdraw the application,” offering no further explanation.

The decision caught Lebanon officials off guard.

Mayor Tim McNamara, Fire Chief Chris Christopoulos and state Rep. Laurel Stavis, D-Lebanon, who all drove to Concord to advocate for the city, said afterward they were taken aback.

“I had gone to the meeting fully expecting to contribute some viewpoint from the citizens of West Lebanon,” Stavis said on Thursday evening. “We were all ready to give feedback.”

DOT spokesman Bill Boynton said the department asked to close proceedings after consultation from the state Attorney General’s Office, which advised the lease shouldn’t go through the Council on Resources and Development, or CORD, because it “does not concern the sale of surplus property,” he wrote in an email.

It remains unclear whether what process would allow Rymes to continue operating in the Westboro Rail Yard. The company currently operates under a temporary use agreement signed in June and scheduled to end on May 31.

John Rymes, the company’s vice president, declined to comment on Thursday’s meeting or his future plain for the rail yard.

“We continue to have discussions with the Attorney General’s Office on next steps. We do plan on continuing railroad operations in Westboro Yard including the Rymes Propane facility,” Boynton wrote.

It’s also unknown whether any other process to obtain a lease would allow city officials and interested parties an opportunity to comment.

The city’s leaders have lobbied for safety improvements in the Westboro Yard since September 2017, when Christopoulos told councilors that the damage from an explosion at the Rymes facility could prove “potentially fatal” for 492 people living within a 1,560-foot radius.

The city opposes a new lease for Rymes, saying in a March 8 letter that it "does not support the storage of gas at this particular location,” and also raised several safety concerns ahead of Thursday’s meeting.

Modern railcars are designed to minimize the risk of an explosion anywhere between 30 to 100 minutes after a fire breaks out, depending on the type of blaze. But the Westboro Yard isn’t visible to most West Lebanon traffic, wrote Christopoulos in a February letter submitted to CORD.

“A fire in or around a railcar may go undetected for a long period during off-hour operation,” he wrote. “The Lebanon Fire Department would respond to a fire in a defensive manner and evacuate the area as we would not know how long the fire was burning or integrity of the railcar.”

Christopoulos also warned that additional storage tanks Rymes planned to install are of “single wall steel” construction, meaning they’re not designed to withstand high temperatures.

He recommended CORD require Rymes to install a gas detection system throughout its operation, which would allow for earlier notification of an emergency.

The company should also mound, or bury above ground, the tanks it hopes to make active, he said.

In the March 8 letter signed by then-Mayor Sue Prentiss, the city added a request that Rymes comply with local codes and regulations before expanding use of the site.

The New Hampshire Rivers Management Advisory Committee, Mascoma River Local Advisory Committee, and Upper Valley River Subcommittee of the Connecticut River Joint Commissions all urged officials to reject the lease on the grounds it could hinder future recreational opportunities in the rail yard, which some hope will be turned into a public park.

“The proposed propane operation would hinder municipal revitalization efforts, which would, among other benefits, provide river access,” wrote Michele Tremblay, chairwoman of the Rivers Management Advisory Committee.

The state Department of Environmental Services also submitted a letter warning that any potential digging at the site could encounter contaminated soil or groundwater left over from past railroad activity.

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

Correction

The city of Lebanon opposes a new lease for Rymes Propane & Oil at the Westboro Rail Yard, saying in a March 8 letter that it "does not support the storage of gas at this particular location." An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the city's position.