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WOBURN — This week, a Middlesex Superior Court Jury convicted a New Hampshire railway company, and three of its subsidiaries, of failing to report a hazardous spill and contamination on its rail yard property in Ayer.

Pan Am Railways, Inc., of Nashua, NH, a privately-owned freight railroad that services northern New England, from Mattawamkeag, Maine, to Rotterdam Junction, New York was found guilty of violating the Massachusetts Oil and Hazardous Material Release Prevention Act (2 counts).

Also found guilty were three subsidiary companies based in North Billerica, Massachusetts. The Maine Central Railroad Company, which owns the locomotive from which the spill occurred; the Boston & Maine Corporation, which owns the Ayer rail yard; and the Springfield Terminal Railway Company, which is the operator of both the locomotive and the rail yard, were also found guilty of violating the Massachusetts Oil and Hazardous Material Release Prevention Act (2 counts).

Pan Am, and its three subsidiaries, are expected to be sentenced on March 30, 2009.

An investigation conducted by the Massachusetts Environmental Crimes Strike Force (ECSF) found that, on the evening of August 8, 2006, a locomotive left idling at Pan Am Railways’ rail yard in Ayer, spilled hundreds of gallons of diesel fuel onto the ground. Despite a two-hour time period for reporting spills of 10 gallons or more to the MassDEP, the fuel spill was not reported by the company or its subsidiaries either that night or the next morning, but instead investigators found that an attempt was made to cover it up.

Massachusetts’ law requires that any owner or operator of a site, as soon as it has knowledge of a release or threat of release of oil or hazardous material, shall immediately notify the Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP).

The MassDEP was first notified of the fuel spill on the afternoon of August 9, 2006, by a caller, who wished to remain anonymous out of a concern for retribution by the railroad. The caller indicated that the railroad was alleging the spill was less than the reportable quantity of 10 gallons, but that workers believed the spill was significantly greater. The caller stated that the railroad appeared to be trying to hide the spill and avoid its detection by covering the spill area with fresh ballast.

The Ayer Fire Department, a member of MassDEP’s Emergency Response team, and inspectors from the Federal Railroad Administration responded to the scene late in the afternoon of August 9, 2006, and initiated an investigation into the circumstances surround the spill.

Initial assessments by the responding agencies indicated that a fuel spill of hundreds of gallons occurred at the site. The Federal Railroad Administration’s investigation eventually concluded that over 900 gallons of diesel fuel had leaked from the locomotive.

Subsequent investigation by the ECSF revealed numerous ways in which the railroad companies learned of the spill, and its extent, but failed to report what it knew to MassDEP. Each failure to report is punishable by a criminal fine of up to $100,000.

A Middlesex Grand Jury returned indictments against Pan Am Railways, Inc. and three of its subsidiaries; Springfield Terminal Railway Company, Maine Central Railroad Company, and Boston & Maine Corporation, on April 1, 2008. On May 27, 2008, Pan Am Railways and three of its subsidiaries were arraigned in Middlesex Superior Court, at which time each corporate entity entered individual pleas of not guilty. The trial began on March 13, 2009 and lasted seven days. The jury deliberated for one hour and a half before reaching a verdict.

The Environmental Crimes Strike Force (ECSF) is an interagency unit that includes prosecutors from Attorney General Martha Coakley’s Office, Environmental Police Officers assigned to Attorney General Coakley’s Office, and investigators, engineers and attorneys from the MassDEP. The Strike Force investigates and prosecutes crimes that harm the state’s water, and air, and that pose a significant threat to human health. The ECSF is overseen by Attorney General Coakley, MassDEP Commissioner Laurie Burt, and Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Ian Bowles.

Members of the public who may have information of a potential environmental crime are encouraged to contact the MassDEP Environmental Strike Force Hotline at 1-888-VIOLATE (846-5283) or Attorney General Coakley’s Office at 617-727-2200.