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West Lebanon Rail Yard Tiff Spurs Legislation

  • Westboro Rail Yard, West Lebanon, N.H. Friday, October 9, 2015. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Concord — Lebanon lawmakers clashed with railroad officials on Tuesday over a bill that aims to increase transparency around the leasing of state-owned rail properties, stemming from a conflict surrounding West Lebanon’s historic Westboro Rail Yard.

Representatives of several New Hampshire railroads argued before a House committee that provisions of the bill, House Bill 135, would pre-empt federal regulation of rail and replace it with local control. They said such a system could then be used to drive them out of hostile communities and hamper business.

But supporters of the legislation countered that it is meant to increase communication between the transportation officials and municipalities and doesn’t target private rail owners.

“Our interest is in ensuring, encouraging the best possible cooperation and communication between the Department of Transportation and each city or town where there may be state-owned railroad property that could be leased,” said state Rep. Richard Abel, D-Lebanon, the bill’s primary sponsor.

Abel’s bill would require the state to notify a municipality 15 days before railroad property within its boundaries is sold, leased or transferred to another entity. The legislation also calls for leases to “meet the same municipal regulatory and safety requirements as private property.”

“The bill does deal only with leases of state-owned property,” he told the House Public Works and Highways Committee. “It is not intended to have any impact on the operation of railroads.”

Abel said the measure was drafted in response to talks between city officials and state counterparts regarding a possible cleanup Westboro Rail Yard in West Lebanon.

Lebanon hopes to obtain some control of historic land surrounding a Rymes Propane & Oil facility inside the yard, which has drawn safety concerns from the City Council and fire officials.

In September 2017, Fire Chief Chris Christopoulos told councilors that the damage from an explosion at the Rymes site could prove “potentially fatal” for 492 people living within a 1,560-foot radius.

City Councilor Clifton Below said Rymes has operated within the active rail yard for years, but aside from the fire chief, no one in local government was notified of the lease.

“There was no notification whatsoever to the city manager, the City Council. It just happened,” Below, a former Democratic state senator, told the committee.

He said the bill would “create more of a level playing field” and potentially allow for newer, more stringent safety standards to be imposed in West Lebanon.

But Patrick Herlihy, director of aeronautics, rail and transit for the state DOT, said the bill largely is redundant.

A law that took effect on Jan. 1 requires the state to notify municipalities after rail property changes hands, he said, adding that the legislation’s safety provisions couldn’t be enforced.

That’s largely because railroad operations fall under control of the five-member Surface Transportation Board, a federal commission whose members are appointed by the president, Herlihy said. Federal law also prevents municipalities from seeking a building permit for railroad-related activities, he said.

Herlihy also noted that the lease of state-owned rail properties are subject to review and approval by the Legislature’s Long Range Capital Planning and Utilization Committee and the Executive Council, whose meetings are both open to the public.  

Thomas Rymes, who runs the propane company with his brothers Jim and John, criticized the city’s safety standards, saying they’ve presented information “in a vacuum.”

If anyone were to look at the effects of an explosion at similar facilities in White River Junction or Bellows Falls, Vt., it’s likely an accident would have devastating effects there as well, he said.

“It’s easy to think about an accident as being bad for safety and everything else good,” said Rymes, who went on to stress the importance of effectively shipping propane. “When people can’t get fuel, people freeze, people die. The supply of propane in this region is extremely tenuous.”

Officials from the New England Southern Railroad, Conway Scenic Railroad and the New Hampshire Central Railroad also testified against the legislation on Tuesday. Reps. Laurel Stavis and Sue Almy, both Democrats from Lebanon, backed the measure. City Manager Shaun Mulholland also attended the hearing to assist Below.

The bill’s fate hasn’t yet been determined, and it’s likely the committee will make amendments before its scheduled released to the full House in March.

Abel offered an amendment on Tuesday that would extend the state’s notification limit to 30 days and loosen what entities would have to comply with local regulations.

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

Clarification

Patrick Herlihy, director of aeronautics, rail and transit at the New Hampshire Department of Transportation, said in testimony to a House committee on Tuesday that the lease of state-owned rail properties are subject to review and approval by the Legislature’s Long Range Capital Planning and Utilization Committee and the Executive Council, whose meetings are both open to the public.  An earlier version of this story mischaracterized his explanation of the  process.