Train in vain?

Fire Chief and EMD Chris Davis excoriates VT Rail System about propane tank storage in West Charlotte

By Geeda Searfoorce | The Charlotte News

During a special meeting held Nov. 24 the Charlotte Selectboard unanimously voted to endorse Fire Chief and Emergency Management Director Chris Davis’s November 19 letter to Vermont Rail System, which outlines “significant concerns and questions” about the storage of loaded propane rail tank cars on the former passenger rail passing siding near 735 Ferry Road.


Potentially hazardous train cars stored north of the Ferry Rd. rail crossing in Charlotte. Photo: Alex Bunten

Davis took aim at the substantial discrepancies between claims that Vermont Rail System made in their October 28 Risk Management Program document and tangible evidence found at the storage site. The RMP states that the Charlotte passing facility would store “20 rail tank cars, each with 30,000 gallon capacity, carrying odorized propane or butane.” However, Davis’ comprehensive inspection of the site, conducted on Nov. 18 using a thermal-image camera, revealed that the actual number of cars stored onsite was 40 and they were labeled “non-odorized propane.” The process of odorizing propane is essential for prompt detection should leakage occur.

In addition to demanding accountability from Vermont Rail System about the number and quality of materials stored at the passing siding station, Davis succinctly addresses no less than 17 issues arising from the RMP’s inaccurate description of potentially hazardous materials and the implications for resulting danger. Chief among Davis’s concerns is the improbability of the RMP’s “worst case scenario,” which assumes that in the event of a vapor-cloud explosion only one of the tanks would be involved, though all 40 of the cars are parked next to each other. Equally disquieting is the RMP’s negligence to mention the VELCO high-voltage electrical sub-station “located within 200 feet of the rail tank cars.”

In his letter, Davis also delineates the discrepancy between the RMP’s use of a 0.4-mile evacuation distance radius and the USDOT’s Emergency Response Guidebook, which requires a 0.5-mile radius. The following structures lay within the 0.5-mile post-spill evacuation radius: “the VELCO high voltage electrical substation, over 100 homes, the Charlotte Family Health Center, the Charlotte Children’s Center, the Charlotte Senior Center, the fire station, the town office, the library, and several businesses.” In the event of fire related to a propane spill, the minimum evacuation distance is increased to one mile.

Additional concerns listed in the letter are the lack of a municipal fire hydrant system in Charlotte, no specific training for Charlotte Fire Department in the event of a spill, and the ecological implications surrounding the wildlife habitat and wetland in the town.
Davis’s concerns, and the Selectboard’s resounding support of his research and subsequent letter, are well founded. Oil spills by the company that owns the rail cars have impacted Canadians in recent years. The U.S.-owned firm, Plains Midstream Canada, which leases track space from Vermont Rail System to store the cars, was fined in 2011 and 2012 in Alberta for $1.3 million.

A representative from Vermont Rail System, David Wulfson, told Davis that the number of the rail tank cars would be reduced. Long-term planning for public safety surrounding the tank storage and ongoing railroad use issues require additional information and study, a task which will likely crop up on Selectboard agendas in the coming year.

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