By Mark Kobzik
About 20 Shelburne residents braved negative temperatures Saturday to tour the new Vermont Railway, Inc. salt storage facility and to hear railroad officials address issues such as environmental impacts and noise complaints.
At the first of two tours Saturday afternoon, Vermont Railway President David Wulfson stood up first to introduce himself and explain his intent to end the “fake news” that he said is circling around town. “This is a state of the art facility…as best as it can be built…I want to be a good neighbor and I’m happy you’re here,” he said.
Event organizer John King spoke about his relationship with the railroad. King said that three years ago he was one of the most vocal opponents of the railroad coming to town with its salt facility, but that becoming more informed about the issues led him to change his opinion. King said he hopes the event would create a more civil and productive discourse in town.
The salt facility has been a lightning rod for controversy in Shelburne since early 2016 when the railroad announced plans to construct it. Given federal laws that allowed the railroad to bypass local permitting processes, the town government and many residents decried not having a say in the details of the operation and a way to review possible environmental impacts, noise, traffic, etc.
The development has been the focus of a federal court case with the town challenging the railroad’s development. The railroad maintains that efforts by the town to rein in the operation, particularly with a new ordinance regulating hazardous materials, is unfounded. So far U.S. District Court has agreed with the railroad, but town officials have decided to pursue an appeal in the case.
Erik Urch is a senior environmental scientist at engineering firm VHB, which was hired by Vermont Railway to manage its compliance with environmental issues. He described the permitting process, which included addressing traffic, wetlands and natural resources. Urch said heightened chloride levels detected by monitoring have been addressed with additional curbing to direct stormwater flow and he said chloride levels are diminishing.
Selden Houghton, intermodal fleet manager with Vermont Railway, addressed noise complaints regarding vibrating equipment that shakes salt loose from railcars. While the bulk of the salt is delivered during the summer, it gets noisier during the winter when it takes more effort to remove frozen salt from the train cars, Houghton said.
Houghton also said they addressed noise concerns regarding an idling locomotive by having it plugged into an electric hot start during warmer temperatures, but when it’s cold the locomotives must idle.
Susan Declue who lives on nearby McCabe Circle said she felt better after the presentation. After more than a year of hearing noise coming from the railroad and causing what she described as physical and mental distress, she said the situation has improved. Should it get worse again, she said, she would go to Wulfson’s house and blare her car horn.
“I felt like this isn’t Shelburne. We just need to communicate better with one another…I was going to come over here blow up that damned engine because I didn’t get any rest. Now the noise is much less, and I’m glad to hear you’re trying not to contaminate,” Declue said.
Wulfson apologized to anyone who’s had issues with the railroad’s operation and said that they are trying to address concerns. “I’m going to tell you right now. It’s not going to go away. We’ll make it the best we can, but during the day from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m., you’re going to hear noise,” said Wulfson.
Bundled tour participants followed Houghton through the site as he showed residents a railway car and the process for emptying salt into the sheds. Next came the two sheds where some 80,000 tons of salt are stored and until distributed throughout the state by truck.
The facility is twice the size of the Burlington salt storage operation the railroad ran until two years ago. The railroad outgrew the site in Burlington’s South End which is now the site of City Market’s new retail grocery store.
Shelburne resident Cate Cross said she attended the tour to be better informed. “I wanted to understand it so we can go forward as townspeople and see what we can change and live with what we live with… I was pleasantly surprised with the information shared,” she said.
Sean Moran asked why the selectboard wasn’t there. “Don’t you want to have all the information before forming an opinion? The minute the selectboard doesn’t have an answer they say it’s client-attorney privilege. The selectboard chairman never answers questions, he either glares at you or says it’s attorney-client privilege and says it’s none of your business. As residents, we’re the clients,” said Moran.
No Shelburne Selectboard members attended the Saturday presentations.