|Posted on April 20, 2014 at 10:30 AM|
PORTSMOUTH — Assistant Mayor Jim Splaine believes the Newington Planning Board will ultimately approve the request by Sea-3 to expand its propane terminal, resulting in more rail cars carrying propane on Seacoast tracks.
"They're about to say yes," Splaine said Wednesday. He has attended multiple Newington Planning Board meetings as it has reviewed the expansion request. "I got that feeling from the board meeting the other day. They don't want to consider the scope of the rail line; they're considering it on the land use for Sea-3 only."
The Sea-3 propane terminal has proposed an expansion that would allow it to receive domestic propane, which is substantially less expensive than paying for propane from overseas. In its filing with the town of Newington, Sea-3 states that if the expansion is approved, the facility will operate 24/7 and substantially increase the number of rail cars carrying propane on Seacoast train tracks.
Numerous municipal leaders and area residents oppose the proposed expansion, primarily because they worry about the condition of the Pan Am Railways' tracks, which will carry the rail cars.
Pan Am Railways Executive Vice President Cynthia Scarano has promised that if the Sea-3 project is approved, Pan Am will upgrade the rail line from Class 1 to Class 2, which will allow its trains to travel as fast as 25 mph. Scarano has said Pan Am intends to run the trains at 10 mph, but that might not always be the case.
Portsmouth attorney Christopher Cole, who represents several city residents, concurred Thursday with Splaine's feelings.
"I get the sense the board feels like it's heard enough from the applicant and to the extent there are concerns about the logistical issues, their hands are tied and they'll probably end up approving it," Cole said.
Cole has pushed for the Newington Planning Board to order Sea-3 to pay for "a comprehensive all-hazards assessment," noting in a letter he sent to the board, Sea-3's proposal calls for a "profound intensification of freight train traffic hauling LPG (liquefied petroleum gas, or propane) from Rockingham Junction in Newfields to Newington, running directly through downtown Portsmouth and a number of residential communities." Cole said Thursday he believes the board could have asked for such a study, "even if it didn't impact approval or disapproval."
The board has refused to do so, saying it doesn't have authority to compel Sea-3 to do anything involving railroad operations. Describing the situation as a "conundrum," Cole said the board "rightly designated this as a project or development of regional significance and then could do nothing about the regional ramifications." He said that put the board in "a very, very difficult position."
He said he has also been frustrated by Pan Am's refusal to commit to operating its trains at 10 mph, as it has been asked to do by numerous residents and municipal officials.
"Those modest assurances would have gone a long way," Cole said. "... They've failed to see how earnest and concerned these folks are. These folks are not NIMBYs, it's already in their back yards. They just want to know what life is going to be like in the new era."
The Portsmouth City Council instructed Mayor Bob Lister to write a letter to the Newington Planning Board last week, stating the city's opposition to the expansion, which Lister has since done.
The state's congressional delegation sent a letter last week to federal officials seeking a "comprehensive assessment of the regional safety and security effects of an expansion of LPG rail shipments" on the Seacoast. "We believe it is important that the federal government provide the information and analysis necessary for community officials and residents to fully understand the potential impacts of increased LPG shipments along the rail line," the delegation wrote in the letter.
The City Council also sent a letter to the Pease Development Authority asking it to seriously consider a proposal by a city resident to run a new rail line through Pease International Tradeport to avoid running the propane rail cars through the downtown. PDA Executive Director David Mullen has said the idea is not economically feasible. No one who supports it has been able to point to a specific funding source nor a cost estimate for the project.
Mullen said he did receive the letter from Lister and will likely discuss it with the authority's board of directors at an upcoming meeting.