Lawmakers: Local regulation of propane tankers possible

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BENNINGTON — Bennington lawmakers and town officials are hopeful new local regulations can address the annual storage of dozens of propane tanker cars on an unused rail spur that passes close to some homes and businesses.

Sens. Brian Campion and Dick Sears, both Bennington Democrats, said they are encouraged on that score after receiving a communication from U.S. Rep. Peter Welch's Washington office, which had contacted the Federal Rail Administration and received a response.

Lawmakers from the Bennington area and elsewhere in Vermont where rail cars with hazardous materials are sometimes parked had pressed for new state legislation or other changes to regulate the storage practice by Vermont Rail System, which has said tankers are parked in Bennington during the fall before delivery to commercial customers during the winter around the region.

But it soon became clear, the state lawmakers said, that the federal government regulates railroads and states have a limited role.

VRS officials have said the strategic storage of the fuel cars came in response to severe cold several years ago that snarled traffic at railyards and delayed delivery of the propane.

However, residents in North Bennington have annually filed complaints with lawmakers and the town because in some areas the black tanker cars are parked within the vicinity of homes and they fear propane leaks, vandalism, fires or an explosion.

Railroad officials have said the parked tankers are safe and are routinely monitored, and all federal safety regulations are complied with.

In mid-December, Campion said he received a message from the congressman's office that brought encouraging news.

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Ryan McLaren, of Welch's Washington office, said staff members "had reached out to staff on the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which in turn contacted the Federal Rail Administration, which provided the following response to the Bennington situation:

"In this case, the LPG [liquid propane gas] cars were shipped to the location under a waybill that terminated at that location. The termination of the waybill moved the cars from 'active' transportation into 'storage.' The active vs. storage differentiation is key. Once the car is removed from transportation (off of the nationwide rail network main line) and moved into storage, federal preemption does not apply. The storage of the cars can be governed by applicable local regulations (permitting, fire codes, etc.). Of note, the tank car itself remains under [Department of Transportation] authority. So a local/state government cannot establish regulations that would mandate requirements to the tank car."

McLaren went on to inform Campion that, "We passed the same information along to [Bennington Town Manager] Stu Hurd, along with some info regarding recent Second Circuit [court] opinions that might also be relevant. We also shared FRA's input with VT Rail folks and encouraged them to work collaboratively with local leaders."

"We are grateful to Congressman Welch's office for their assistance and are encouraged that it now looks like there is a role for local government to stop these rail cars from being stored in Bennington," Campion and Sears said in a media release. "To that end, we look forward to continuing to work with town officials on this important issue."

Contacted last week, Hurd said in an email, "We are seeking [legal] counsel's opinion to determine next steps. The information from Welch's staff was helpful, but not as clear as I would have hoped."

Peter Young, a spokesman for Vermont Rail System, said last week that he believes all of the propane tankers parked in the fall in North Bennington have been delivered to VRS customers. The rail spur stretches out from the village rail station on the spur, past Lake Paran toward Bennington, where it was discontinued.

He said he would seek further comment from management officials but no response was received as of press time.

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal. Twitter: @BB_therrien

     


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