|Posted on June 6, 2014 at 12:40 AM|
PORTSMOUTH — The City Council unanimously voted Monday night to direct the city's legal department to file an appeal of the Newington Planning Board's decision to approve the expansion of the Sea-3 propane terminal.
Assistant Mayor Jim Splaine made the motion for City Attorney Bob Sullivan to take “any and all actions necessary and appropriate to appeal the decision” made by the Newington Planning Board two weeks ago.
Numerous area officials and residents have raised concerns about the condition of the tracks owned and operated by Pan Am Railways that would carry a significant increase in propane rail cars.
The unanimous vote came after the City Council met with Sullivan in executive session for more than an hour to discuss the options Portsmouth city officials had concerning Newington's decision.
Sullivan said in open session during Monday night's meeting in City Hall that he talked to councilors so they could understand “the pros and cons of various options.”
Splaine said that he was confident in the legal department's ability concerning the filing of the appeal.
There was no other public discussion about what motivated the council to make its decision after a few councilors raised concerns the last time the panel discussed the issue.
About 30 city residents who showed up to hear the council's decision erupted into applause after the unanimous vote was concluded.
The vote followed comments by a series of speakers who implored the City Council to file the appeal.
Portsmouth resident Richard DiPentima, who has led much of the opposition among residents in the city against the proposed expansion of Sea-3, asked councilors to “reach down into your heart, reach down into your conscience,” before making the decision.
He noted that Newington made its decision based only on the safety of the site, and not concerns raised by area residents and officials about the safety of Pan Am's railroad tracks.
“That leaves it up to Portsmouth to defend its own interest,” DiPentima said. “Are we going to let a threat to our community go unchallenged?”
His wife, Catherine DiPentima, also urged the council to appeal what she called “the reckless decision of the Newington Planning Board.”
She noted that propane is particularly dangerous because it is an “unodorized gas” that first responders could have difficulty detecting.
“You have a particular special responsibility to protect our irreplaceable waterfront,” she said.
Sullivan said after a previous meeting that the city has never filed an appeal of a decision made by a board in a neighboring town.
In its filing with the town of Newington, Sea-3 stated that the facility will operate around the clock and substantially increase the number of rail cars carrying propane on Seacoast train tracks once the expansion is completed.
Pan Am Railways Executive Vice President Cynthia Scarano has promised to upgrade the rail line from Class 1 to Class 2, which would 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.
City Manager John Bohenko stated in a memo to the council that Scarano is available to meet with the council on Monday, July 14.
Catherine DiPentima also credited City Councilor Stefany Shaheen with raising the idea of creating quiet zones in Portsmouth at city rail crossings.
Peter Britz, the city's environmental planner and sustainability coordinator, has said the work needed to try to win approval of the Federal Rail Administration would be “quite extensive.”
But Britz also pointed out in a memo to Bohenko that “taking even some of the steps required in the process is likely to further rail safety.”
Britz said creating quiet zones — which are typically at least a half-mile long — will allow locomotive engineers not to sound the train's horns as they travel through a city or town.
“In order to establish a quiet zone, the key provision is that the (rail) crossing must have adequate supplemental safety devices installed,” Britz said in the memo. “At a minimum, the supplement safety devices must include gates and flashing lights.”