ROCKLAND – About 80 residents have signed a petition asking the City Council and code enforcement office to “represent and negotiate the needs of the neighbors harmed by Maine Eastern Railroad,” in a dispute stemming from complaints about diesel fumes.
The petition was given to councilors during their meeting Wednesday. Two dozen residents attended. They say they are concerned about noise, fumes and other issues surrounding operations at the Rockland train station.
The colder it gets, the worse diesel fumes will be, resident Sandra Schramm said Thursday. Diesel fumes hover “in people’s homes, and it doesn’t leave your home as quickly as the train leaves the station.”
Resident Debby Atwell stressed to councilors the dangers of diesel fumes.
“Diesel fumes cause serious permanent impairment of the nervous system in diesel-exposed railroad workers,” Atwell said Thursday in a phone interview, citing information she said she obtained from the federal Clean Air Task Force. “It degrades the immune system, interferes with our hormones and induces allergic reactions not limited to asthma.”
Petitioners want their rights protected in regard to having “a peaceful night’s sleep, clean air, and no light pollution, secured by law,” the petition states.
Residents also request that the trains be parked away from residential areas at night and that safety equipment be installed immediately at Broadway, Lisle and Broad streets so those crossings can qualify for “quiet zone” designation.
“We want the railroad to stay, but not to degrade our property values, not to spoil the enjoyment of our home life and not to harm our health,” the petition states.
City Manager Tom Hall could not be reached Thursday for comment.
Last month, the city code officer issued a first notice to MERR, citing the city’s ordinance prohibiting annoying noises or odors after neighbors complained of diesel fumes, loud noises, vibration and glaring lights coming from outside the train station.
MERR officials responded by adjusting the outdoor lighting and repairing its shore power, which ended the temporary use of certain generators. Three-phase electrical shore power had been knocked out at one point by lightning or a power surge, officials had said.
The city gave the railroad until Oct. 9 to “take immediate steps to eliminate obnoxious fumes and reduce engine or other noises to a level that is not annoying” and to comply with lighting standards by the same deadline.
Because of neighbors’ continued concerns, Code Officer John Root said Thursday that he is preparing a second and final notice to the railroad.
In an Oct. 10 letter to the code officer, Gordon Page Sr., director of passenger operations for MERR, outlined steps already taken to improve lighting and noise.
In regard to fumes, Page wrote: “While Maine Eastern Railroad operates equipment only when necessary, exhaust from diesel-powered locomotives is unavoidable during the operation of the train.”
In July, MERR reacted to neighbors’ complaints about whistle noise by fashioning an agreement with the city to stop blowing train whistles at certain crossings until an application for a “quiet zone” might be approved by the Federal Railroad Administration.
The temporary compromise sanctioned by the FRA restricts passenger trains from sounding whistles at Lisle and Broad street crossings and Broadway between the hours of 8 p.m. and 9 a.m. Instead, MERR is providing flaggers at those crossings when the whistle is silent.
At that time, Jon Shute, general manager of MERR, made it very clear that not sounding whistles at crossings is against his better judgment.
Safety crossing equipment that was supposed to be installed this summer to help qualify the city for quiet zones is still pending. Some of that equipment apparently was stolen for its copper content.
On Thursday, Page said MERR hopes to have the equipment in place by the end of the year.
When asked what would satisfy neighbors, Schramm suggested several measures, including:
. Moving trains that must be left idling to the roundhouse near New County Road until passengers are ready to board.
. Lowering decibel levels of whistles.
. Possibly installing catalytic converters on engines.