The Price of Oil Trains

Metroland | July 31, 2014 | Column by Ali Hibbs

As tensions mount over how to address the dangers of crude coming through Albany by rail, one official calls for the recloation of residents of an entire housing project

photo by Ann Morrow

One year after oil tankers went off the rails and exploded in Lac-Megantic, Quebec—killing 47 people and leaving a community devastated—local political leaders and community members are growing increasingly concerned about a similar tragedy occurring closer to home. A recent explosion in oil tanker traffic coming into the Port of Albany through South End neighborhoods, and the half-dozen literal explosions that have occurred across the United States and Canada since the Quebec tragedy—not to mention the local oil spill at Kenwood Yard last month—have those living in communities close to the tracks concerned for their health as well as their safety.

Over the last several months, how to best address these mounting concerns has become the cause of some political tension and has resulted in the formation of two separate local investigative bodies. Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan announced the creation of her blue-ribbon panel on rail safety last week, following Albany County Executive Dan McCoy’s seemingly sudden declaration that residents of the Ezra Prentice public housing project in Albany’s South End should be immediately relocated to ensure their health and safety. Ezra Prentice is adjacent to tracks on which oil tank cars travel and are often left sitting, providing an ominous—and malodorous—background to a park in which children play basketball.

“Headaches, dizziness, feeling nauseous: These are not uncommon reactions to being exposed to fumes associated with crude oil operations,” said Christopher Amato of EarthJustice during a press conference held this week by McCoy’s advisory committee, announcing the introduction of a hotline that the public can call to report strong odors emanating from rail terminals or the Port of Albany itself—odors, they say, that may signify serious health hazards. Amato and EarthJustice represent the Ezra Prentice Homes Tenants Association, Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter and the Center for Biological Diversity in challenging the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to require an environmental impact statement before any expansion of activities by oil companies at the port.

Anne Pope, a South End resident, regional director of the NAACP and a lifelong asthmatic, also spoke of the dangers of fumes produced by crude oil. She extolled McCoy for being proactive and went on to advocate for the evacuation of Ezra Prentice if there was nothing else that could be done to remove threats posed by the nearby trains.

McCoy began actively working to stanch the flow of oil into the Port of Albany earlier this year when he imposed a moratorium on the expansion of crude-oil processing until a comprehensive study on the health and safety effects on the community could be completed. After being told that his moratorium was “prejudicial to the [oil] company,” and had “no legal basis,” McCoy convened his Expert Advisory Committee on Crude Oil Safety in May, stating, “It’s clear that the scope of this investigation requires that we bring in independent experts to help us.”

During the last two years, the Port of Albany has experienced a dramatic surge in rail-borne crude oil carried by CSX and Canadian Pacific Railway Co. from the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota. At Albany, a purported 85,000 barrels of the oil-sands crude are loaded each day onto barges bound for refineries in New Jersey and New Brunswick by oil distribution companies such as Global Partners LP. As Metroland reported last month, these developments came largely unbeknownst to anyone in the local community or government, save one—former Mayor Jerry Jennings. (As previously reported: In 2012, the DEC approved a permit allowing Global Partners to bring up to 1.8 billion gallons of crude oil into the Port of Albany annually and, according to documents pertaining to the approvals, Jennings was the only local politician who was notified—and he apparently didn’t bother to notify the public.)

Global Partners is currently seeking permission from New York State to expand its local role even further by installing a boiler system that would allow the company to import a heavier type of Bakken crude and heat it before shipping it back out of the region. This process brings with it even more concerns about possible deleterious effects on local air quality and environmental safety.

Until recently, Sheehan had insisted that the costs for safety measures, including air monitoring and environmental impact studies, should be covered by the oil and rail companies that are benefiting from expanded use of the port. In a statement responding to McCoy’s call for the removal of Ezra Prentice residents, she reiterated her stance and essentially deferred the issue of rail safety to state and federal government.

That, however, clearly is not enough for those currently living next door to the oil-laden tracks.

“I don’t know how many warnings we’re going to get,” said Charlene Benton, president of the Ezra Prentice Homes Tenants Association and resident of the community. “We have 156 children under the age of 16. . . . We have to do something.” Benton applauded the efforts of McCoy and others, but went on to say, “I don’t think we’ve done enough. . . . It’s time for us to begin to come together and come up with some resolutions.”

“I disagree that those living in the shadow of bomb trains should wait for federal action to create safer standards for rail transportation of crude oil,” wrote McCoy in response to Sheehan after she implied that his recommendation was rash and unwarranted. “Experts acknowledge that even if federal action were taken immediately ordering improved standards, it would take years for new oil tanker cars to come online.” (Fact: Recently proposed federal regulations would not force the total retirement of outdated, easily punctured DOT-111 tank cars like those involved in the Quebec incident until 2020.) “The people of Ezra Prentice live every day with the danger of these cars literally in their backyard. That is why I’m asking for the Albany Housing Authority to explore seeking federal assistance to relocate these residents now.”

In addition to the moratorium and push to explore options to evacuate Ezra Prentice—a move that many decried as premature, alarmist and overreaching—the office of the county executive also recently introduced legislation imposing harsher penalties on those who do not report oil spills within an hour of their occurrence. This was in response to the oil spill at Kenwood Yard last month, when workers neglected to notify authorities for five hours after four cars derailed. His advisory committee, headed by Peter Iwanowicz, executive director for Environmental Advocates of New York, has been working closely with concerned local politicians and residents to mitigate concerns and seek out answers.  The launch this Wednesday of the public reporting hotline (“Uncommon Scents”) is intended to help “an overall assessment of possible health and environmental impacts of the rail activities in the county,” according to Iwanowicz.

While Sheehan believes that McCoy has overstepped some boundaries when it comes to this issue, she also seems to have realized the importance that it holds for the community—and that waiting for the state or federal government to step in is unlikely to satisfy those who are living (and sleeping) with the daily reality of Bakken crude in their backyards. She released the names of those who will sit on her blue-ribbon panel this week, and has said that she anticipates they will have come up with long- and short-term recommendations for assuring rail safety by early September.

For anyone living near crude-carrying rail lines: Should you or any of your family members detect any new, unusually strong or disturbing odors in your area, the hotline number to call is 211.  Iwanowicz stresses, however, that if you believe you are in immediate danger, you should call 911 directly.

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@PAUSEnergy tweeted this page. 2014-07-31 17:55:11 -0400
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.