Lower city speed limit sought

timesunion.com  |  September 30, 2014  |  by Jordan Carleo-Evangelist

McCoy, Sheehan request federal intervention before new regulations take effect

Albany

County Executive Dan McCoy and Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan are calling on the federal transportation secretary to tap his emergency authority to limit speeds on oil trains that pass through local cities even before new safety requirements take effect nationwide.

Railway oil cars parked along Rt. 32 north Tuesday Sept. 30, 2014, in Albany, NY. (John Carl D'Annibale / Times Union) Buy this photo

A three-page letter was sent Monday as a personal appeal to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx accompanying the county's lengthy public comments on DOT's proposed new safety standards for trains carrying crude oil and other highly flammable cargo.

Those new standards, proposed in July, were prompted by a series of high-profile accidents, including a catastrophic derailment and explosion in July 2013 that leveled much of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, and killed 47 people.

The proposed standards include phasing out the use of non-retrofitted older tank cars more prone to rupture from carrying a certain class of flammable cargo within two years and reducing speeds for high-risk trains.

McCoy's letter praises DOT for taking steps to limit the risk to communities like Albany, which has grown into a hub for as much as 2.8 billion gallons of oil shipments into the Port of Albany annually. But he says the changes will take too long and don't go far enough.

"They keep kicking the can down the road, and as county executive I don't have the luxury of doing that," McCoy said, noting that it could be 2020 before the high-risk cars are fully retired.

"Nothing could happen. God forbid if it does and we're not ready. The time for delays is over with. We need to keep the chains moving on this."

Sheehan and McCoy also called on Foxx to immediately order rail companies to provide more advance information to local responders on trains carrying crude through the county and to direct local companies to only accept shipments from retrofitted or newer, safer models of tank cars.

Massachusetts-based Global Partners, which wants to expand its oil terminal at the Port of Albany, voluntarily began complying with that standard this spring.

"Finalizing, litigating and fully implementing those improvements will take at least several years, perhaps longer than the boom in crude oil by rail will last," McCoy wrote in the letter co-signed by Sheehan. "Meanwhile, the risks faced by the county are real now, and extreme and increasing."

Among the county's other recommendations:

Require that crude oil be treated to make it more stable and less flammable before it is shipped by rail.

Require that new safety standards apply even to trains with fewer than 20 cars to avoid tempting rail companies to run smaller trains to dodge the standards.

Speed up the implementation of automated braking systems designed to help avoid accidents.

Reduce the speed limit for high-hazard trains to 40 mph or lower and peg local speed limits to the specific threats posed to rail-side communities such as Albany, Watervliet and Cohoes.

Require financial guarantees from rail oil carriers to compensate local authorities for costs incurred during and after an accident.

The joint letter appears to signal that Sheehan and McCoy have unified their efforts to address the oil train issue — to this point a source of friction between State Street and City Hall.

McCoy earlier became one of the most outspoken local officials on the issue when, under the authority of county Health Commissioner James Crucetti, he issued a moratorium on Global Partners' proposed expansion at the port pending a health and safety review.

McCoy also appointed an advisory panel, chaired by a former state Department of Environmental Conservation commissioner, to study the threat to Albany County and guide his efforts.

But McCoy's call in July to relocate hundreds of residents of the Ezra Prentice Homes public housing complex adjacent to the Port of Albany caused a rift with the city, whose housing authority oversees the apartments, and prompted Sheehan to convene her own blue-ribbon panel on the issue.

Matthew Peter, Sheehan's chief of staff, said Tuesday the two committees now plan to issue a joint report in the near future.

Also on Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Paul D. Tonko filed his own responses with DOT.

While Tonko said he broadly agrees with the plan, the Amsterdam Democrat faulted one proposal that would require high-risk trains to slow down only around population centers of 100,000 or more — which would not apply to Capital Region communities.

Tonko, an engineer by training, called that "an arbitrary standard."

"Either DOT should apply more refined and protective criteria," he wrote, "or the speed restriction should apply in all areas."

DOT did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

jcarleo-evangelist@timesunion.com518-454-5445@JCEvangelist_TU

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PAUSE, People of Albany United for Safe Energy
PAUSE is a grassroots group of individuals who have come together to promote safe, sustainable energy and fight for environmental justice. We engage the greater public to stop the fossil fuel industry’s assault on the people of Albany and our environment.