Photos by Matt Keller
Deep skepticism about the lack of safety precautions being proposed in a draft of the 2015 Vermont State Rail Plan have led concerned citizens to mobilize in Charlotte. Citizens for Responsible Railroads member Lydia Clemmons of Charlotte, and Charlotte Fire Chief Chris Davis, brought their case to the people in a July 27 Selectboard meeting.
Clemmons and Davis urged their fellow residents to join together to push for more thorough safety precautions for the western corridor of the rail plan in preparation for the slated increase of rail traffic through Shelburne and Charlotte. Both speakers were clear they are not against this plan, but are for improved safety protocols.
Neighbors across the lake in New York have been jumping up and down on this issue for more than a year, Clemmons said. “The governor, the senator, citizens groups, and environmental groups, and the press. Over here we are sleeping. If I were a businessman who owned oil and rail lines, and I had two choices for rail lines, one in New York where people were being really cantankerous and one parallel to it in Vermont, where there was a new plan to connect the rail all the way to Albany and no one was putting up much of a fight, I might choose the latter.”
Fire Chief Davis said he is not anti-rail or against the rail plan. “It is safer to transport dangerous cargo by rail than by truck,” he said. “However, my family and I do live within 1,500 feet of the track. That is the minimum distance to evacuate if there is a leak. With a fire, it jumps to half a mile, depending on the wind, which would reach the post office. With a more serious fire or explosion, depending on the wind, it could be miles in every direction.”
David Wulfson of Shelburne is Vermont Rail System’s president. He was reached for comment at his office on Tuesday morning. He declined to get into specifics about Citizens for Responsible Railroads and their efforts, but had a succinct message regarding the town. “It is a day late and a dollar short for Charlotte. For them, it is all about the view.”
Davis said it’s less about the view, and more about safety. He said he would rather be dealing with these issues now when they are manageable, than after an incident, when it is too late. Among the safety concerns raised was a lack of a proper rail yard for idle tankers, a lack of proper railroad crossings, and tankers and tracks that are insufficient to haul larger, modern loads at high speeds.
Clemmons is calling for strict speed regulations, and more regional hazmat inspectors. Fueling her concerns over safety have been the recent proliferation of domestic energy sources being transported by rail. Over the past few years, the Bakken oil shell in North Dakota and the tar sands of Canada have ramped up energy production. According to Clemmons, these energy sources are more dangerous to transport than more traditional petroleum products, and they are currently being transported to Albany from Canada along the west coast of Lake Champlain. Clemmons and Davis worry that upon completion of the state rail plan, these dangerous products could just as easily be transported through Shelburne and Charlotte.
Clemmons and Davis want towns along the western corridor to join together to get their concerns on the record before Sept. 15, when the state will stop considering public comments.
According to Dan Delabruere, Rail Program Director for the State of Vermont, the state eagerly awaits comments from the public about how the money should be spent on safety. However, he also pointed out that certain aspects of rail safety are only controlled but the federal government with no input from the state.
Delabruere said that any issues regarding infrastructure—crossings, crossing gates, embankments, bridges, etc.—are state issues, while any safety issues regarding the actual movement of the trains is a federal issue. Federal issues include what materials are being transported, the safety protocols on the actual tankers, and how fast they will be moving.
On the issue of rail yards to store idle tankers and train cars, Delabruere said that the state would be accepting public comment, but that any solution would need the cooperation of the rail line and the federal government as well.
“The state owns certain rail lines, and if we own the asset, we should grow it,” Delabruere said. “This is an issue that affects all Vermonters, whether they know it or not.”
Feed for farm animals, salt for the roads in the winter, and home heating oil are just a few of the products that get to Vermont via rail, Delabruere said. “Inefficient rail lines will make all of those commodities more expensive over the long term,” he said. “Whenever someone fills up their gas tank or goes to the grocery store, those prices are affected by rail. This plan is important for the future of Vermont.”
Comments can be forwarded to firstname.lastname@example.org or by mail to Modal Planner Costa Pappis, Policy, Planning & Intermodal Development, Vermont Agency of Transportation, 1 National Life Drive, Davis Bldg., 5th Floor, Montpelier, VT 05633-5001 or call 802-828-5790. Lydia Clemmons may also be contacted at email@example.com.
Contact Matt Keller at 598-9366 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/KellerOnSports.