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Rostraver rail spur debate could result in 'expensive litigation'

| Thursday, April 28, 2011

Officials from an Ohio railroad company attended a meeting yesterday with hopes of alleviating concerns about reopening a railroad spur along Rostraver's Finley Road to transport potentially flammable bi-products from gas well drilling operations.

The spur owner, Wheeling & Lake Erie Railway Co., wants to have Centennial Energy LLC, of Denver, Colo., supervise loading and transportation — or "transloading" — of a liquid propane and butane mix generated from gas drilling operations at part of a 130-acre site behind the former SuperValu building.

Fracking sand used in the gas well drilling could also be transported from the site.

Materials can be transported to and from the site by truck or train.

Several Wheeling & Lake Erie officials agreed to meet with the public amid a stalemate between the company and the township's commissioners regarding approval to operate the site.

The commissioners have said that, according to township laws, the railroad company must obtain a special exception from the zoning hearing board in order to reopen the spur.

Wheeling & Lake Erie President Bill Callison said the company is federally regulated and claimed that trumps the need for township approval.

Callison said Centennial Energy has for the past year supervised a similar Wheeling & Lake Erie-owned operation in Green Tree Borough without incident.

He said Green Tree officials granted Wheeling & Lake Erie permission to use a spur there without a zoning hearing.

"What we're trying to do is fill in on the zoning by owning into an agreement," he said of the situation in Rostraver Township. "We're not saying forget about it. We're saying tell us your concerns and we want to satisfy them ... whatever the concerns are so that you can achieve your local oversight through an agreement rather and the zoning hearing board."

Callison claimed it's unreasonable to require Wheeling & Lake Erie to obtain a special exception in each community when strict federal safety requirements apply.

"If you had to do it in every single community, it would be very difficult, which is why there is federal preemption and interstate commerce," he said of approval from the zoning hearing board. "That doesn't mean we can't address the local concerns, which is exactly what we want to do."

Callison said federal oversight "is pervasive enough that you do not have to go to the zoning hearing board."

"What if they have one set of operational constraints in Green Tree and another here• It interrupts interstate commerce," he said. "The whole idea is to be able to address the concerns, and we will address them customer by customer as they come in. But, if you do it with the zoning board every single time, you're not going to be able to develop as a business."

Callison said if the township continues to demand a special exception, "then we would have to go to a federal court and federal court would refer us to the Surface Transportation Board and it would be very expensive litigation for both of us.

"We'd prefer it not to happen. That's why we're here at the meeting."

Callison said a $400,000 matching grant from the state Department of Transportation has been used to upgrade the railroad spur.

"That track was almost out of service for 20 years, so we're glad to have it back in service and hope it will bring jobs and business opportunities to the area," he said.

Callison said the number of jobs created at the spur depends on how the original operation goes and how much expansion takes place.

There is also potential for other companies to move into the area and directly use the transloading service.

"We are already looking at people to come in to buy real estate," Callison said. "This will always be set up as a transloading site, but that doesn't mean you can't have a manufacturer back there."

Jonathan M. Chastek, Wheeling & Lake Erie's economic and industrial development manager, said the railroad company is committed to growing the site.

"I've marketed this site to nine different companies in the last three years. Of those companies, five of them were not related to the Marcellus shale," he said. "I don't have any definite commitments are this point and part of the reason right now is this site had a lot of trees on it and is not site ready. A lot of people have a hard time seeing past that."

Several residents at the meeting said they are concerned about hazardous or potentially flammable materials being hauled near their homes.

Resident Nick Staffieri, a long-time railroad conductor, said he lives about 300 yards from the transloading site.

"Everything that used to be there was lumber and food. It wasn't propane," he said of the spur's prior use.

"The transloading operation is safe. We've got professional people involved," Callison said.

Staffieri said the commissioners should consider other materials that could be hauled at the site or stored there.

"They could put a 500,000-ton coal pile down there and it could be blowing dust on Rehoboth Road on the front of every house," he said. "You guys have got to watch before you open a can of worms."

"But, you still have to get the proper permits," Callison said.

"There are wetlands involved there," Staffieri added. "There are geese and ducks down there nesting now in their woods. So, we've got to get the game commission and the DEP involved in this, too."

Joe Vesely, of Vesely Brothers Moving & Storage on Finley Road, said there is a history of drainage issues under the railroad spur.

"Someone made a ditch behind the railroad spur and stopped it right behind our building ... instead of continuing it to allow it to go into a holding pond," Vesely said. "It leeched under the railroad track and onto the back of our building."

During a break in the meeting, Cheryl Boyd said she lives five miles from the site but the railroad tracks run near her Van Meter Road home.

"That's all we need is a derailment and propane tumbling in our driveway," she said. "We came to hear what they had to say but we pretty much know we don't have a choice because it is federal."

Commissioner Nick Lorenzo said he is concerned about liability in the event of an accident, with Wheeling & Lake Erie owning the spur but Centennial serving as the supervising company.

"I want to know who to call if something happens," Lorenzo said. "We've got three fire departments, four with Belle Vernon, that we need to train, and (Wheeling & Lake Erie) wants to go in there without our permission. Why that bothers me• We have no control."

Addressing the railroad company's willingness to attend the public meeting, Lorenzo said, "I think it's an excellent step."

Lorenzo and fellow commissioners Andy Temoshenka, Brian Sokol, George Martin and Pat Egros said they are most concerned about public safety.

"Anytime the railroad is involved, safety is a major issue," said Sokol, who is president of the Rostraver Central fire department. "I applaud them for coming out here and taking the time from their schedule to share what they want to do.

"So far, no red flags went up."

Martin said the meeting did not cure his skepticism.

"There's a reason - and no one has found out why - that they don't want to go before the zoning hearing board," Martin said. "We have to decide whether we want to spend taxpayers' dollars to fight a big railroad who thinks that they are preempted from going to our zoning hearing board."

"Here's how it works: Public servants protect the public interest," township Solicitor Timothy Maatta added.

Westmoreland County deputy emergency management coordinator Dan Stevens attended the meeting.

He said if the opening of the railroad spur goes through, local emergency services would work with Wheeling & Lake Erie to prepare for emergencies.

"That's going to be up to Rostraver what requirements they're going to have to set up," Stevens said. "I'll make that recommendation that Rostraver do that. I'm sure that the railroad has a training program developed to assist the local responders."

Stevens said there shouldn't be much concern about transportation of propane.

"Taking it from one vessel to another vessel really isn't an issue, because we do that pretty much every day at places where you get your RV filled up, where you get your propane tank for your gas grill filled up," he said. "And those locations aren't under the strict guidelines that the railroad is under. You look at anybody that's involved in railroad and safety is always the priority item. This isn't the first time that they're doing transloading of propane."

The commissioners said there will be future public meetings about the issue.

They urged the public to share any concerns in the meantime by calling the municipal building at (724) 929-8877.

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