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LIGHTNING EDITORIAL: Rail tankers not subject to zoning

Watco, the shortline freight hauler that operates here as Blue Ridge Southern Railroad, is just doing what a smart business does. Other railroad companies suddenly found themselves with tankers sidelined by a glut of crude oil and natural gas. Blue Ridge has rail tracks it’s not using. Supply and demand strikes again.

As the Hendersonville Lightning reported last week, the ominous-looking black tankers showed up on the rail line between Highland Lake Road in Flat Rock and Mine Gap Road last month. Residents of Highland Lake Village, an upscale mostly retirement neighborhood in Flat Rock, don’t like looking at the cars. The LP gas warning labels make them nervous.
Ginger Brown is a resident Highland Lake Village and a Flat Rock Village Council member. Her neighbors assumed she could do something about the rail cars. Not so much. First, that section of tracks is not within the village boundaries. Brown contacted the railroad company’s local marketing director.
“I called her twice last week and kind of complained a little bit,” Brown said. “She called me Friday and said some of those tankers had been called back into service. She said she couldn’t promise that they wouldn’t come back and bring friends. But they’re still there. She said they will be leaving this week. She said they might go this weekend.”
Brown said she was appreciative that Blue Ridge Railroad pulled the tankers from the Highland Park Road area this week.
In an interview last week, Blue Ridge Railroad’s marketing director, Brigid Rich, described the tankers as “empty residue cars” that contain no volatile chemicals or gas.
“It could be an in-and-out kind of thing,” she said of the duration. The railroad company can use the tracks for this purpose, she said, even though the line has been out of service since 2002.
Councilwoman Brown also mentioned plans to contact Henderson County to see what elected officials could do. Little to nothing. Turns out the tankers in storage are yet another example of a disruptive land-use beyond the reach of local zoning regulations, like the proposed Duke Energy transmission line last summer and the current natural gas line construction.
“That’s their property,” County Manager Steve Wyatt said when the Lightning asked about the stored tankers. “It’s a railroad. It’s commerce.”
It’s encouraging that Watco’s local managers, by all evidence, are open about what the business is doing and responsive to neighbors’ concerns. Watco is, after all, the company that has to come to the table if the Ecusta Trail is ever going to happen. Plenty of people would gladly accept a few months of storage on the Saluda-bound line in exchange for negotiations on the Hendersonville-to-Brevard line.
Residents who have researched the current state of the oil and gas industry learned that surplus tankers are increasingly common as drilling and fracking has slowed. The oil market is like the weather in our mountains. If you don’t like it, wait a little a while and it will change.