Oil trains sidetrack states

Times Union | February 21, 2015 | Column by Eric Anderson

Long history of federal regulation stymies efforts by activists in region to get shipments banned

Tanker cars in the Selkirk rail yard Thursday, Feb. 19, 2015, in Selkirk, N.Y. (John Carl D'Annibale / Times Union)

When it comes to regulating oil trains, states don't have a lot of power.
Activists concerned about the dangers the trains pose in Albany have learned that firsthand as they pressure state officials to ban the oil traffic.

The loss of state clout dates back to the 19th century, when the U.S. Supreme Court, in an 1886 decision, rejected an effort by Illinois to regulate railroad freight rates, ruling that only Congress could oversee interstate commerce.

Doris Kearns Goodwin, in her book "The Bully Pulpit," writes that Congress the next year established the Interstate Commerce Commission to fill the regulatory void, a move that railroads eventually came to welcome because of the law's shortcomings.  "It satisfies the public clamor for government supervision of railroads," she quotes one corporate lawyer, "at the same time that the supervision is almost entirely nominal."

At the time, farmers and small businesses were seeking protection from monopolistic pricing by railroads.
More than 125 years later, oil has become the biggest obstacle to getting grain and other crops to market, as oil trains overwhelm the capacity of rail lines.

It's not the first time that railroads have moved oil in large quantities.
Albany rail historian Dick Barrett recalls how, during World War II, German U-boats off the East Coast began sinking oil tankers as they made their way from the Gulf of Mexico to East Coast refineries.
Oil cargoes were shifted to trains until effective protection for the sea routes could be established, Barrett said.

Oil trains also moved along the New York Central line from the West.
"You'd see New York Central freight engines pulling 100 oil cars down the Mohawk Valley," he said. "If it hadn't been for the railroads, it would have been awfully cold for New England."

There were accidents.
One of the worst involving tanker cars occurred in 1871, according to Aaron Klein's "The History of the New York Central System."
A passenger train, unable to stop in time, plowed into a freight train that had just derailed on the neighboring track. While the account doesn't say what the tankers were carrying, "fire broke out on impact," Klein wrote, and 22 people died.

The resulting publicity led the railroad to separate freight and passenger train tracks, leading to a four-track system that lasted into the later part of the 20th century.

The present-day oil train shipments from the Bakken field of North Dakota have proven to be far more explosive than other types of crude. Regulations by North Dakota to remove some of the volatility before shipping won't take effect until April. But it's not clear whether the processed crude would have prevented the fireball that followed last week's derailment of a CSX oil train in West Virginia.

While New York state officials praised the new limits when they were announced in December, critics said Canadian investigators had found oil on the train that exploded in Lac Megantic, Quebec in July 2013 would have met those standards. Forty-seven people were killed in the disaster.

Organizations such as People of Albany United for Safe Energy emphasize the volatility risk in their efforts to get state regulators to ban the oil shipments, citing the "imminent hazard" they pose to the communities through which they pass.

On Friday, Assemblyman Phil Steck, whose 110th District includes parts of Albany, Colonie and Schenectady County through which oil trains pass, called on federal regulators to immediately require shippers to remove volatile natural gas liquids before Bakken crude is loaded on tank cars for shipment.

So far, state officials haven't been willing to ban the oil shipments. 
Instead, they've worked with federal safety inspectors to ensure tracks and equipment are in good repair.

U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, meanwhile, is pushing for swift approval of new federal safety standards for tank cars that would be more stringent than the latest industry standards used in so-called CPC-1232 tank cars.
Those cars failed, officials said Thursday, even though the CSX train was traveling just 33 mph in a 50-mph zone. 

eanderson@timesunion.com • 518-454-5323

http://www.timesunion.com/news/article/Discipline-gap-in-focus-6097667.php

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Oil trains sidetrack states
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.