Safety concerns linger after Upton rail yard spill

A chemical spill at an Upton rail yard has been cleaned up, but some residents say concerns about safety at the site linger.

On Dec. 18, a faulty valve caused approximately 100 gallons of styrene — a highly flammable chemical used to make plastic-foam packaging material — to spill at the Grafton & Upton Railroad yard at 25 Maple Ave. Local and state public safety and environmental workers responded to the scene, and the town’s nearby waste-water treatment plant was evacuated.

Upton Fire Chief Aaron Goodale said his department received complaints about the smell of the chemical from residents for a couple of days, and that some Department of Public Works employees experienced burning eyes and headaches at the site. But, he said, the spill occurred on land protected by an impermeable barrier, and the tainted gravel and topsoil have been removed.


“As far as I’m concerned, it’s been mitigated,” Goodale said. “There was no unsafe condition.”

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Doug Pizzi, a spokesman for the short-haul rail line, called the spill “a minor situation.”

“The spill was unfortunate, but the fact that the yard was built to minimize any eventuality like that, the fact that people were trained and procedures were in place, that’s what was able to minimize the damage from that incident,” Pizzi said.

The once-dormant railroad has been the subject of some controversy since it began operating in earnest again in recent years. The railroad is subject to federal, rather than local or state, oversight for most matters, and some residents have expressed concerns about dangerous chemicals being transported by the rail line and sitting in freight cars in the Upton yard.

Jennifer Doyle, who operates a local news website, Upton Daily, emphasized that she doesn’t take positions on controversial issues, but she said she’s noticed increased buzz in the community about the railroad since the spill.


“I have seen a lot of things posted on social media by various members of the community who have spoken about the railroad in the past being concerned about the situation in town,” Doyle said.

Resident Lara Wahl said that although the recent spill was contained, she worried about the possible effects of a larger incident. “A small town like Upton with about 7,000 people, if a larger spill or explosion happened, it could devastate our entire town,” she said.

“Yes, this is a little spill,” said resident Lauren Scheuer. “It could be bigger in the future.”

Al Holman, a Board of Health member, said he is concerned about any chemical spill in town, but the styrene spill was “not a lot” and was handled appropriately.

“Our Fire Department has been trained for hazardous materials, and it was handled quite professionally by the Fire Department and the train operation,” he said.


Residents have sometimes butted heads with town officials, whom they perceive as taking the train company’s side. A group of residents bypassed town officials and hired a lawyer on their own to file a petition with US transportation officials, saying that not all of the Grafton & Upton line’s train company’s local operations should be covered by federal regulations. A ruling has yet to be issued.

‘A small town like Upton with about 7,000 people, if a larger spill or explosion happened, it could devastate our entire town.’

In a separate case, the rail company is also under an injunction preventing it from building a propane facility in a residential area in Grafton.

Goodale, the Upton fire chief, said he’s “not grateful” that the rail company brings dangerous chemicals into town, but said there isn’t much anyone can do other than to be vigilant. He said the Fire Department conducts weekly inspections at the rail yard, and that residents who notice unusual smells or other warning signs should call his department.

Goodale wouldn’t say which chemicals are being transported or stored by the rail line, citing security concerns, but he said that 10,000 loads of styrene have been transported in the past three years, with only this single spill.

“The odds of 1 in 10,000 aren’t bad,” he said.

Calvin Hennick can be reached at calvinhennick@yahoo.com.