A proposal to store up to 100 rail tanker cars of liquid propane on a short-line railroad at the East Tennessee Technology Park is under review, although officials emphasized today that nothing is definite at this point.
John Shewairy, a Department of Energy spokesman, confirmed that Bechtel Jacobs Co., DOE’s environmental manager in Oak Ridge, is conducting a safety evaluation on the potentially controversial project.
“We have not received the results of that. We expect that sometime in the very near future,” Shewairy said. “After seeing the results of the safety evaluation, we’ll proceed from there . . . . .I’ll definitely have some more information once we have the safety basis.”
The proposed project, however, is not a DOE project.
The possibility of bringing liquid propane to East Tennessee Technology Park was raised as part of the economic development programs at the site, which is undergoing transition from a DOE cleanup site to a private industrial park.
The 11 1/2-mile short-line railroad, with a section that traverses the former uranium-enrichment plant, is currently owned by Heritage Railroad Corp., a subsidiary of the Community Reuse Organization of East Tennessee. CROET, a non-profit company, coordinates the reindustrialization of former federal properties in Oak Ridge.
Some spurs on the rail line have been used for storage of rail cars in recent months with Heritage Railroad receiving tariffs and other fees. But Jeff Deardorff, president of Heritage Railroad, said those were all empty tank cars or those containing residual amounts of chemicals.
Deardorff confirmed today there had been a couple of “inquiries” in recent weeks about the possibility of storing rail cars with liquid propane at the site. The initial inquiry did not pan out, apparently because the owner of the materials chose another storage or sale option. But Deardorff said the second inquiry, which came about a week ago, is still active.
Because of the hazardous contents, Heritage Railroad contacted Bechtel Jacobs to review the proposal and evaluate any potential safety impacts, he said.
Bechtel Jacobs employs hundreds of workers at the Superfund cleanup site, where demolition of the massive K-25 uranium-processing facility and other cleanup projects are under way.
The situation is further complicated by the fact that the short-line railroad is being sold to EnergySolutions, a Utah-based company that processes and disposes of nuclear waste, and the closing on that deal is supposed to take place today.
The rail line and associated infrastructure are being sold, but the land underneath the railroad would reportedly remain in the hands of DOE. Deardorff and Lawrence Young, the president of CROET, both indicated today that if DOE had a problem with the storage plan it likely would not take place.
Deardorff said the latest feedback he received from Walden Ridge Railway Co., the subcontractor that does maintenance and operations for the short-line railroad, was that the storage project appears unlikely anyway. He said the time that has passed since the initial inquiry may mean the owner of the liquid propane has found another option for the tank cars.
After talking with one of the officials at Walden Ridge, Deardorff said he was told that no railroad cars are on the way to Oak Ridge for storage at this time.
“All we have right now is an inquiry,” he said.
Even though the inquiry was about storing up to 100 tanker cars, Deardoff said his information was that the more likely number would be somewhere between 10 and 50.
Mark Walker, a spokesman for EnergySolutions, said late today he was unfamiliar with the proposal and was unable to reach any company officials for comment.
It was not immediately clear how the financial arrangements for the storage at the Oak Ridge railroad site are made. Deardorff indicated that sometimes there are set contracts and in other occasions shipments are simply based on inquiries responding to commercial advertisements.
It would not be untypical for someone making an inquiry about the availability of storage space and the fees to later go somewhere else — without further notification — if a better rate or storage location was found, Deardorff said.
Some observers raised concerns about the potential dangers of having LP tanker cars stored at an unsecured facility, especially given the proximity to federal installations in Oak Ridge. Previously, some of the empty rail cars have been stored on railroad tracks west of the K-25 not far from Highway 58.
Apparently the Bechtel Jacobs safety evaluation is looking at how many tanker cars of liquid propane, if any, could be safely stored at the site and what locations on the tracks would be best for the activity.
Regardless of the outcome of the current proposal, the analysis would give a better idea of what can be accommodated at the site in the future, Deardorff said.
Young said the decision would be up to the owner, which will become EnergySolutions on Tuesday if the closing goes through as planned. Deardorff said he didn’t know what time the closing on the sale of the railroad is scheduled to take place.
Asked for his opinion on the proposal to store propane tanker cars at the site, Young said that would be depend on the outcome of the safety evaluation.
”I think if it can be ascertained that it’s reasonably safe operation, it will likely go through,” he said. “If it poses no greater health or safety risks (at ETTP) than anywhere else in East Tennessee, then why not? They’re still studying it.”
Deardorff said Heritage officials were asked to specify what sites might be used for storage, but he declined to discuss those kinds of details — citing homeland security concerns.