State to require full environmental review of crude-heating facility

Capital New York | May 21, 2015 | Column by Scott Waldman

ALBANY—After 18 months of pressure from environmental and community groups, state officials have reversed an earlier position, and will now require a full environmental review of a crude-heating facility that would allow tar sands oil to be shipped down the Hudson River.

Oil tankers lined up at the Port of Albany. (AP Photo/Mike Groll, File)

On Thursday, the state Department of Environmental Conservation announced that it will conduct a full review of a proposal by Global Partners to install a crude-heating facility at the Port of Albany.

“Our review of Global’s application has focused on protecting the health of people living around the facility and the environment,” D.E.C. commissioner Joe Martens said in a statement. “This community has voiced its concerns and raised some serious issues. Through the environmental review process, DEC will continue to evaluate the project’s impacts.”

State officials had previously determined that the facility would not need an extensive environmental review, before declaring that the state would conduct an "interim" review that led to today's decision for a more comprehensive study.

The project has drawn the attention of environmental groups around the country. The decision is a major blow to the energy industry as its looks for new routes to ship heavy crude from Western Canada.

When the project was first proposed in 2013, the D.E.C. issued a negative declaration for the project, which meant it did not require an extensive environmental review before final approval. Since then, community and environmental groups have hosted dozens of protests against the project, which they say could have opened up the Hudson River to a new level of risk. Tar sands crude is heavier than other crude oil, likely to sink in bodies of water and nearly impossible to clean up.

In recent days, senior D.E.C. officials met privately with Albany officials to tell them that it was legally difficult to challenge the project because they only had purview over the air permits. Some elected leaders pushed the D.E.C. risk a lawsuit, saying the project could have a major effect on a nearby public housing complex.

On Thursday, D.E.C. officials cited the housing complex as a reason for the comprehensive review.

“Because of the close proximity of the 137-unit Ezra Prentice Homes residential housing development to Global’s facility, the potential for these proposed changes to have significant adverse impacts on the environment must be fully analyzed,” D.E.C. officials wrote in a letter.

The decision could push back a final determination on the project for years and open it up to lawsuits from environmental groups.

Global has threatened lawsuits over delays in the project, and claimed the state could rescind its earlier declaration that the boiler didn't require a full environmental review. The company has 10 days to respond to the D.E.C.'s determination.

Global Partners Executive Vice President Edward Faneuil said the application had not been denied and portrayed the decision as a state request for more information.

"The DEC’s action will not affect Global’s day-to-day operations or activities at the Albany facility," he said. "As always, we are committed to fully complying with all applicable environmental, health and safety regulations."

After the proposed boiler project was first announced, environmental groups rallied around the effort to shut it down. Global and another oil transportation company, Buckeye Partners, have state permission to move 2.8 billion gallons of crude through Albany annually. Dozens of unit trains carrying more than 100 tankers of crude oil travel through New York each week. Much of their cargo is offloaded in the Albany port and shipped down the river by barge or ship.

Until now, that crude has largely been from the Bakken shale region of North Dakota. That crude is more likely to explode than tar sands crude, though a number of recent rail accidents involved tar sands crude exploding. If approved, the boiler project would turn New York into a virtual rail pipeline for one of North America's most productive oil fields.

Environmental groups hailed Thursday's decision as a major victory and thanked the Cuomo administration. The state and community need to thoroughly understand how the boiler would effect air, water, climate and public health, said Peter Iwanowicz, executive director of Environmental Advocates of New York.

“This proposal was never about one facility in one city, and the oil industry knows that,” he said. “They tried to slip this one by but the citizens of Albany and in other Hudson River communities stood up and said no to Tar Sands. It is great that the DEC put the health of people and the health of New York’s environment first and will require that this proposal go through a full and comprehensive review.”

And while rail transport typically falls under federal purview, the decision by the Cuomo administration reflects an increasing state interest in rail cargo, as the number of oil trains has grown from 10,000 a year to more than 400,000 carloads transported last year.

“With so much emphasis on the preemptive power of federal railway laws Governor Cuomo is demonstrating that states can protect citizens from crude-by-rail dangers where federal regulators have failed them,” said Roger Downs, conservation director for the Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter.

The project has been a major source of concern for the Capital Region, said Assembly members Pat Fahy and John McDonald in a joint statement.

“We are pleased and appreciative of the decision by the Department of Environmental Conservation today in regards to the rescinding of negative declaration of the air permit to Global Companies,” they said. “Since the first day we have been in office in 2013, there has been tremendous concern and outreach from our constituents about the potential impact which has caused great consternation both in the affected community and beyond.”

On Thursday, D.E.C. officials said that a review of 19,000 public comments submitted on the proposal raised significant issues that met the standard to rescind the project's earlier negative declaration determination. In their announcement, the D.E.C. said Global did not provide adequate air emissions data needed to make a final determination on the projects permits. State officials said Global did not provide adequate data on how the boiler would meet ambient air quality standards for hydrogen sulfide.

http://www.capitalnewyork.com/article/albany/2015/05/8568585/state-require-full-environmental-review-crude-heating-facility

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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.