Communities work to slow expansion of crude oil moved by rail

McClatchy DC | January 1, 2015 | Column by Curtis Tate

 — Mayor Tom Weisner can’t stop the crude oil trains from moving through his city on two railroads, but he’s doing what he can to make sure they do so as safely as possible.

From his downtown office window, every day Weisner can see about four to seven trains with 100 or more cars of Bakken crude from North Dakota on the elevated Burlington Northern Santa Fe line passing through his city of 200,000, about 40 miles west of Chicago.

When combined with the oil trains that move along the city’s eastern border on a Canadian National line – and with ethanol trains running on both routes – the risk factor increases.

“Between the two,” Weisner said, “the number of trains on a daily basis that are carrying something flammable is probably more in the 15-20 range, at least.”

Local officials have very little jurisdiction over rail transportation, and some have felt powerless as a tide of domestically produced oil has begun running through their communities by rail.

But that doesn’t mean they don’t have any say. Weisner and Karen Darch, the village president of Barrington, about 35 miles north, formed a coalition five years ago to push the rail industry’s federal regulators to pay attention to the impact of increased train traffic on their communities.

Now Darch and Weisner are two of the leading voices among local officials who are pushing the U.S. Department of Transportation to move faster and more aggressively in getting older, more puncture-prone tank cars off the trains.

Regulators are within weeks of announcing the final rule for the standards, including a timeline for scrapping or upgrading the older cars in crude oil and ethanol service. It isn’t known whether the federal government will impose a longer timeline favored by industry groups or the shorter one pushed by Darch and Weisner.

Darch said she thought that regulators had gotten the message.

“Our united voice said, ‘No, it has to end now,’ ” she said. “It has helped push the envelope.”

The trains pass through Barrington and Aurora on their way to distant terminals. In those cities and counties, officials have other means of keeping a check on the expansion of crude by rail operations.

Almost overnight, Albany County, N.Y., became a hub for crude oil trains. Two railroads take them into the city’s port, just blocks from the heart of state government, where the cargo is transferred to barges bound for Northeast refineries.

Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy was alarmed at the rapid increase and the implications for public safety and the environment. He couldn’t stop what was already going on, so he issued an executive order imposing a moratorium on the expansion of the rail-to-barge operations sought by Global Partners, an oil industry transportation logistics and marketing company.

“They got more than they bargained for,” McCoy said of the oil and rail companies.

The county also moved to fine companies $1,000 for not reporting spills within 30 minutes and $1,000 for every additional hour that passes with no report.

Documents obtained from the New York State Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services through an open records request show that 25 to 44 Bakken crude-oil trains each week pass through Albany County on CSX and Canadian Pacific.

“I don’t want to be reactive,” McCoy said. “I want to be proactive.” 

Some of the most vocal opponents of expanded oil train terminals are, not surprisingly, in the San Francisco Bay Area and northwest Washington state, regions well-known for their environmental activism. Both have recently become major destinations for crude oil trains.

But the most unlikely success for opponents of crude by rail came in the heart of the Louisiana Gulf Coast petrochemical complex.

In October, the St. James Parish Council voted to deny a permit to Wolverine Terminals, which sought to build a $30 million crude-by-rail facility about 45 miles west of New Orleans that would be able to receive and store oil from U.S. and Canadian sources.

Louisiana Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, in announcing the project a year earlier, had cited it as an example of his state’s business-friendly climate.

“This was going to be a big facility squished into a small piece of property with a community all around it,” said Wilma Subra, a chemist and adviser to theLouisiana Environmental Action Network.

Some of the opposition was based on environmental concerns. But ultimately, many residents simply didn’t want to live near it.

Darch said community leaders could have a meaningful role in shaping policy, even when dealing with a federally regulated industry.

“There is a place for local government,” she said. “We can’t make the rules, but we can have a voice in informing them.”

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PAUSE, People of Albany United for Safe Energy
PAUSE works to promote safe, sustainable energy and environmental justice.  We aim to engage the greater public to stop the fossil fuel industry's assault on the people of Albany and our environment.