Bennington Select Board, lawmakers react to parked rail cars
State lawmakers have raised the issue with Scott administration officials and with the railroad, and state Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, has been developing legislation designed to regulate the storage of rail cars with hazardous materials in residential or environmentally sensitive areas.
And state Rep. Timothy Corcoran II, D-North Bennington, a member of the House Committee on Transportation, said Tuesday he's considering filing similar legislation in that chamber.
After hearing from resident Al Bashevkin during a meeting Monday, the board asked Town Manager Stuart Hurd to draft a letter to state and federal lawmakers and the governor's office. The local officials said they understand that the railroads are regulated by the federal government, but believe they should actively voice their concerns.
Bashevkin, of Settlers Road, noted that loaded rail cars were parked in the past along the spur line between North Bennington and Bennington, "but now this is hazardous material."
He said it appears the rail line is "being rented out for storage" by Vermont Railway, which confirmed through a spokesman last week that the tankers hold propane destined for commercial customers in the region. The intent, he said, is to avoid propane shortages during severe winter weather.
The black tanker cars reportedly totaled about 80 at one point and were stretched along the rail spur in North Bennington Village eastward into Bennington, including on both sides of Rice Lane. However, a number of the cars were moved recently away from homes near the Rice Lane crossing.
Vermont Railway Vice President Selden Houghton said Monday that the movement of cars was not related to complaints from residents and area lawmakers, but was part of "the normal course of doing business" in supplying commercial customers with propane.
Houghton said he didn't know whether the area would be again used for storage, adding that "it's all based on business needs," and on the weather over the winter.
Hurd and Select Board Chairman Thomas Jacobs noted that the Federal Trade Commission has regulatory jurisdiction over the railroads, so the town's leverage concerning the rail tankers could prove limited, as could the state's.
Vermont Railway System does operate under a contract with the state, which owns the rail rights-of-way, Hurd said.
"The problem you run into is, whose jurisdiction is it?" he said.
Jacobs asked for a board resolution to "communicate to the powers that be" the town's concerns. "This is not something that is appropriate to a community like ours," as opposed to a more rural section of track, he said.
At one point, Bashevkin asked whether there might a regulatory line that could be drawn between storage of rail cars with non-hazardous material and those with hazardous and/or flammable contents.
"I'm hopeful there can be a determination that prohibits this kind of storage in the future, but I just don't know," Hurd said.
Not all notified
Hurd said the railroad did approach the North Bennington and Bennington fire departments to notify them of the storage of a flammable material, and Houghton confirmed that notice about the propane in the cars was provided, along with training information on how to react to an emergency.
However, Hurd said the railroad didn't directly notify town government of the situation, which investigated after receiving a complaint.
Shaftsbury Fire Chief Joseph Vadakin, whose town closely borders the area, said in a letter to Campion that he wasn't notified.
Should the parked tankers catch fire or explode, he said, "the devastation would be incalculable. The loss of life, property and the ecology would be catastrophic."
Vadakin added, "So to make my point clear, the company has offered no warning that this was going to happen, no training if something were to go wrong."
Houghton said previously that the rail company has complied with all federal reporting and other requirements and contacted Bennington fire and emergency management personnel, including about related training.
The parked rail cars also are being monitored, he said, and safety procedures "beyond federal regulations" were put in place by the company.
At the request of Select Board members, Hurd said he will ask the Bennington fire departments for their assessment of the situation and plans for confronting an emergency involving the tankers.
"I have reached out to legislative counsel about drafting a bill that would let Vermonters know the contents of such tankers and not allow tankers that contain hazardous materials to be parked anywhere near residential areas," Campion said this week.
Corcoran said he is exploring what the state can do given that the railroads are regulated by the federal government, and he'll try to "piggy back" with any legislation sponsored in the Senate by Campion and Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington.
"Obviously, I have some grave concerns about the placement of those cars," he said, "and this is something I am looking into."
Corcoran added that he was disappointed that Vermont Railway chose an area near residences to store flammable materials.
"Personally, I just can't believe where they stored those cars," he said. "I think you have to have a little common sense."
Among legislative approaches Campion, the vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy, said he is exploring are:
- Requiring those subject to the federal Hazardous Materials Transportation Act to submit "registration statements" and "transportation security plans" to Vermont's Secretary of Transportation and the Commissioner of Public Safety.
- A bill requiring the State Emergency Response Commission (or Emergency Management Division) to submit an annual report to the General Assembly that would summarize the emergency response training activities it has undertaken concerning the training of public sector emergency response and preparedness teams in matters relating to the transportation of hazardous material, and training related to hazardous materials incident response preparedness.
- Requiring the commission to report the amount in federal grants it has received under HMTA to conduct training activities; summarize activities which give the commission authority to ensure that a state plan will go into effect when an accident occurs involving the transportation of hazardous materials, and describe how the state comprehensive state emergency operations plan addresses coordination with local emergency planning committee response plans.
- A bill making persons subject to the HMTA subject to civil penalties and criminal fines in actions brought by the state for failure to comply with requirements of the HMTA.
"We need to get on the offensive," said Campion said. "This situation continues to be very worrisome to me, and we need to do everything we can within our powers as a state to protect our citizens."
Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont and VTDigger.org. @BB_therrien on Twitter.
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