Derailment Fuels Fears Around Propane Facility

06/18/2015 05:09 pm ET | Updated Jun 18, 2015
Cory Dawson for NECIR

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The following story was reported by Isaiah Thompson of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting and published here in collaboration with The Huffington Post. NECIR trains the next generation of journalists in investigative reporting with summer high school workshops in Boston. Learn more and apply today.

A train run by the Grafton and Upton Railroad derailed in the town of Grafton, Mass. on Tuesday night while crossing through the town’s center.

The derailment came just minutes before a town meeting in which the railroad’s owner, Jon Delli Priscoli, was scheduled to address a public audience over concerns related to the expansion in recent years of the railroad’s activity.

No one was injured, the train remained fully upright and Doug Pizzi, a spokesman for the railroad, says the incident was a minor one and caused no damage to the track. (It did damage at least some public roadway).

But the incident loomed much larger than its component facts for many of Grafton’s residents.

The train had been carrying two gigantic tanks, each capable of holding about 80,000 gallons of liquid propane, toward the north side of town, where the Grafton and Upton Railroad plans to open a brand new, major “trans-loading” facility to unload propane and store it -- in those very tanks.

Town officials had been keeping a close eye on the tanks for months, since the railroad obtained permission to move it (because the load is so large, the permit required an escort of state police). Since the tanks began their journey last week, they were spotted sitting by the side of the road in Millford, about 25 miles from Grafton. Grafton town officials got word yesterday that the tanks had begun moving toward the town by rail, but didn’t know when or if they would finally arrive.

The new facility would operate on land owned by the railroad, but is also located in a residential part of town, not far from an elementary school. Many residents, especially those near the new site, have opposed its opening, and the town of Grafton has fought the facility, challenging that it violates zoning, environmental, and safety laws.

So far, the railroad has defeated those challenges; last fall, the federal Surface Transportation Board, which regulates freight commerce, ruled that the railroad was exempt from local and state laws that would interfere with interstate commerce -- i.e., the railroad’s running a propane trans-loading facility.

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It’s a tension increasingly common in small towns and big cities across the country, as the United States’ unprecedented domestic energy boom -- of which railroads shipping propane, crude oil, and other energy products have become one key component -- quietly reshapes the landscape of energy transportation and, often, the communities through which new energies are suddenly moving in bulk.

The town has appealed that decision; but in the meantime, the railroad has gone ahead with its plans, as was evident in the spectacle of the two hulking tanks rumbling through Grafton last night and then stopping -- not, of course, by design -- in the very middle of town.

For many of the residents who gathered at the scene, the derailment -- while itself not so scary -- seemed to be an ominous reminder of their larger fears around the opening of the facility.

“They’ve tried to reassure me that ‘Oh, there’s an emergency plan,’” says Jennifer Holmes, who has a young daughter at the North Grafton Elementary School, near the planned propane facility. “If they can’t move it across town, how are they going to control it once it’s actually here?”

The tanks moving by rail yesterday were the first two of four purchased by the railroad to store propane at the new intended trans-loading facility.

Railroad spokesman Pizzi said today that the next two tanks will be transported one at a time.

By 9 p.m. Tuesday, the train had been righted and, with a loud groan, resumed its way toward its controversial destination.

Isaiah Thompson is a reporter at the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, an independent, nonprofit news center based at Boston University and WGBH News. Read more of his reporting on crude and ethanol trains here. Isaiah can be reached at isaiah_thompson@wgbh.org and on Twitter at @isaiah_thompson.

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