WORCESTER, Mass. – Do the Grafton & Upton Railroad's plans to build a propane transfer terminal fall under federal pre-emption rights? Final arguments in the matter will be heard Feb. 11 after attorneys for the town of Grafton and the railroad rested their cases Friday in U.S. District Court.
Judge Timothy S. Hillman will then decide whether railroad owner Jon Delli Priscoli’s plans for the Westborough Road facility fall under federal pre-emption rights, which would remove the operation from local and state oversight.
"When I make my decision, it doesn't mean it's going to go away," Hillman cautioned both sides. Should Hillman decide the propane transfer terminal is not included in federal pre-emption, the matter then returns to Worcester Superior Court.
In December, the town issued a cease-and-desist against the railroad after Delli Priscoli revealed plans to construct the terminal and import four 120-foot, 80,000-gallon propane tanks. Propane, brought in by the nearby CSX rail line, would be stored and off-loaded on the property.
In testimony Friday, John Holstein, vice president of operations for Spicer Gas, said the company's Groton, Conn., facility, like the one planned for Grafton, required a filing with the Department of Homeland Security. Any storage of more than 10,000 gallons of propane falls under that requirement.
Spicer contacted CSX about an additional facility back in 2010, a communication that eventually got the company in touch with the Grafton & Upton Railroad. He called the planned operation in Grafton an "open facility" because it would have clients in addition to his company.
Spicer also described the "blue flag" warning procedure required when a railroad car carrying propane or other hazardous materials enters a train yard. The blue flag prohibits the operation of trains on a track where it is displayed, preventing potential accidents.
Asked the number of transfers to tankers expected daily, Holstein said the "top range" is up to 30.
Both sides now have until Jan. 30 to submit their full cases to Hillman before returning to court on Feb. 11 for final arguments. Hillman said he would probably not opt for a visit to the site himself, wryly noting that he has avoided site visits since ruling on a pig farm in Princeton several years ago.
As the town closed its case in court, U.S. Rep. James McGovern met with Town Administrator Timothy McInerney to discuss the matter.
"I don't think those propane tanks should be located in a residential neighborhood," McGovern said. "I'm going to do what I can to work with state and federal officials to keep it from happening."