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Regional focus on railroad safety

Officials cite need for wider planning

By Jose Martinez
Globe Correspondent / November 6, 2011

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Controversy surrounding the resurgence of a railroad operation in Upton has spurred the town to draft a regional emergency response plan with the state and neighboring communities, should an accident happen along the tracks.

At a meeting last week, federal officials assured residents that the railroad operation is safe, but local officials, responding to concerns voiced by residents, are taking no chances.

An initial emergency response plan is on file with the state, but plans will be updated as the Grafton & Upton Railroad operation evolves, Fire Chief Aaron Goodale told dozens of residents at a special question-and-answer session held Tuesday at Nipmuc Regional High School.

“I have worked extensively on this,’’ Goodale said. “The town already has a comprehensive emergency plan in place, as required, and it fits any situation at the railroad as far as a large-scale incident goes. The process of building out the railroad is an expanding process. We will expand our plans as they expand their development down there.’’

The meeting was called by the Board of Selectmen and attended by officials from the Federal Railroad Administration to address neighborhood concerns about development at the West Upton rail yard, as well as the potential hazards posed by chemical tankers on the property.

Jon Delli Priscoli, who three years ago bought the long-dormant railroad, which dates to 1873, sat with his lawyer in the front row of the auditorium.

Upton already is part of a regional hazardous materials team that is run through the state Fire Marshal’s Office in Stow, but over the last two weeks, Goodale has met with fire officials in Northbridge and Grafton, as well as representatives from the rail line and its client at the Upton yard, Dana Corp., to begin drafting a regional response plan.

Rail accidents, while rare, can be catastrophic for any single community, the fire chief told the gathering. Joining forces not only makes sense from a planning perspective, he said, but may lead to additional funding.

Another meeting is expected in the next two months.

According to William S. Schoonover, staff director of a hazardous-materials division in the Federal Railroad Administration, all the operations at the West Upton yard are in compliance with federal regulations, and are exempt from local and state jurisdiction as long as they involve transportation operations - even the long-term parking of tank cars loaded with hazardous materials.

“Doesn’t that mean storage?’’ asked Marsha Paul, a former selectwoman and former member of the Upton Board of Health.

“No, it’s transloading within the yard,’’ answered Schoonover. “It is one of the areas where our regulations have allowed for a long period of time - longer than I have been overseeing them - the ability to keep cars in yards for indefinite periods.

“I know that is a tough issue to say,’’ Schoonover continued. “It is one of those areas I don’t relish standing up in front of a bunch of citizens and telling them that our regulations allow that, but that is in fact what it does.’’

Mike Pinko, who lives near the tracks, asked if any substances were simply too dangerous to store at the Upton yard, which is also near the main well for the town’s water supply.

“The railroad can’t turn any product away, and we don’t have the right to tell them what they can and can’t have down there,’’ Goodale replied. “Certainly there are materials that have us concerned down there, but we have a relationship with the railroad that, when those materials come in that are unusual, we are made aware of those. We are down there on a regular basis.’’

One chemical that is handled at the Upton yard is ethanol, a combustive substance that is used as an additive in gasoline; it can be difficult to control in a spill or fire without special foam and procedures.

Goodale said Upton is fortunate that the trains carrying ethanol into town are few in number and they travel slowly.

The nearby towns of Uxbridge and Northbridge sit along the more active Providence & Worcester rail line and see far more ethanol traffic, he noted.

“I look on the bright side,’’ Goodale said. “We don’t have 40-, 50-, 60-car trains coming through our town at 50 or 60 mile an hour. They come into town here at 8 or 10 miles an hour, and crossings are guarded at this point. They are flagging out there. It is a low-speed operation.’’

Resident Ellen Arnold asked whether the emergency planning includes evacuations of nearby schools. The fire chief said current plans include evacuation procedures, and establish safe evacuation distances of 800 feet and a quarter-mile, depending on the nature of the incident, but school officials would be updated as the plan evolves.

After the 90-minute question-and-answer session, Christine Maloney said she was still concerned about the effect that an active railroad would have on her home of 18 years. The tracks pass behind her backyard, and she can see and hear activity on the rail, Maloney said.

“It’s noisy,’’ she said, adding that she suspected the Groton & Upton line’s resurrection may be connected to a dip in her home’s value.

Paul, the former town official, said she had mixed feelings about the meeting, during which she sparred with Selectman Robert Fleming, the board’s chairman, over whether the town should ask another federal agency, the Surface Transportation Board, for a ruling on what activities in the rail yard are exempt from local control.

Selectmen had recently overruled an attempt by the Planning Board to hire outside counsel to seek the opinion, which Fleming contends would unnecessarily cost Upton thousands of dollars in litigation to get answers already provided by the Federal Railroad Administration, and confirmed in a letter from the Surface Transportation Board.

“I have different things in writing from the STB than Bob Fleming. If we want to know what is preempted, we have to go to the STB for an opinion. It is not about a lawsuit, it is just getting the facts,’’ Paul said.

On the other hand, she added, “it seems like the owner is cooperating with us, which is good. I am pleased he is putting a catch basin in - that was my fear, the spilling of hazardous chemicals.’’