Bill would increase regulation of rail car storage
The legislation was prepared in response to the storage in November of approximately 80 tanker cars carrying propane on an inactive rail spur in North Bennington and Bennington. The cars prompted concern among residents and local officials.
A spokesman for Vermont Railway System said the company is merely planning ahead to avoid the kind of propane shortages that occurred three years ago during a severe winter, when weather snarled traffic through the region's railyards.
The tankers, which the railroad began removing from the Bennington spur two weeks ago, were strategically placed for delivery to commercial customers as needed, according to Vermont Railway Vice President Selden Houghton. Decisions concerning the storage of materials in parked rail cars are being made based on the needs of the customers, he said.
"A couple of years ago, during a cold winter throughout New England, there were shortages of propane," Houghton said when the concerns were raised, "so we adapted to our [commercial] customers' needs."
He added that local fire departments and emergency management officials were notified of the tanker storage and offered training dealing with an emergency relating to propane.
In addition, Houghton said, the rail cars parked in Bennington were being monitored, and safety procedures that went "beyond federal regulations" were put in place by Vermont Rail.
However, residents and local officials contended in November that having a potentially explosive material stored close to or within residential areas presented the chance of catastrophic loss of life and widespread property damage. Potential leaks from the tankers also would present an environmental threat in the soil or groundwater, they said.
Campion's legislation would require anyone subject to the federal Hazardous Material Transportation Act and required to submit registration statements and transportation security plans to submit copies to the Vermont Secretary of Transportation and Commission of Public Safety.
In addition, the bill would "create strict liability for personal injuries or property damage arising from a violation of the HMTA and its implementing regulations," and "require the state Emergency Management Division to consider HMTA registration statements and transportation security plans in preparing the state emergency management strategy, and to submit an annual report to the General Assembly summarizing its activities and grants received ."
The proposed legislation also would make persons subject to the HMTA "liable for civil and criminal penalties in environmental enforcement actions brought by the state for failure to comply with requirements of the HMTA and its implementing regulations."
Senate bill S.194, which was prepared with assistance from the Legislative Council, was co-sponsored by Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington.
A potential uncertainty for the legislation is the fact the railroads are regulated at the federal, not the state level.
In response to a Nov. 30 letter of concern from the Bennington Select Board, Gov. Phil Scott said in part: "The state of Vermont does not have jurisdiction over the operation of railroads," which are "held accountable by the Federal Railroad Administration, and depending on what the material is and how long it remains stationary, the [federal] Environmental Protection Agency."
Scott added, "The reason for this oversight at the federal level is to ensure consistent rules and regulations across all states, for the regionwide and nationwide travel of many trails."
The governor said it is not uncommon for propane tankers to be staged at different sites around Vermont, especially in early winter, to avoid propane shortages due to harsh weather.
"Fortunately," Scott stated, "VRS [Vermont Rail System] works with Vermont Emergency Management to provide public awareness on the transportation of hazardous material."
The information is not a public record, Scott added, because of security concerns, but "VEM and VRS both use this information for situational awareness to help train first responders on how to act in the event of a hazard."
Contacted Tuesday, Campion said, "The bill was drafted with full understanding of the federal rules, and I believe there are many aspects of the bill that both complement and strengthen federal rules for the protection of the health and safety of all Vermonters."
Propane tankers also have been stored recently on a side rail near Route 7 in Mount Tabor, which Houghton said was a similar storage situation to avoid propane shortfalls during this winter.
State Rep. Linda Joy Sullivan, D-Dorset, who represents the area, said her constituents haven't raised significant concerns, but one local official wanted to know whether all federal regulations were being followed.
"As far as the proposed [state] bill," Sullivan said, "it makes sense with the assumption that Legislative Council will flag any possible violation of the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution and whether state laws or regs on transportation of hazardous material infringe on federal supremacy."
Contacting Campion in November, David Bond, a faculty member at the Center for the Advancement of Public Action at Bennington College, said there were "about 15 residential homes within 1,000 feet of where the tanker train is parked (including five homes within about 100 feet of the tanker train). Several hundred homes in North Bennington are within 1,000 feet of the railway that transports these tanker cars, as is a popular fishing spot, a popular swimming beach, and the downtown of North Bennington."
Bond and others said that while the chance of an explosion might be low, such an event would devastate a wide area around the rail spur. At the time, he estimated, were about 80 black tanker cars marked as carrying propane.
Rail cars were parked there in past years, he said, but those apparently contained cargoes of nonflammable limestone slurry.
Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont and VTDigger.org. @BB_therrien on Twitter.
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