Air Quality Concerns Raised By Albany Residents Living Along Oil-By-Rail Tracks  |  October 11, 2014    by Justin Mikulka

Ezra Prentice apartments

Residents of the Ezra Prentice apartments in Albany, N.Y., have been complaining about air quality issues ever since the oil trains showed up in the Port of Albany two years ago.

And recent testing by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has confirmed their fears. In 20 out of 21 air samples taken by the department, benzene levels exceeded the long-term benzene exposure standard. Benzene is a known human carcinogen.   

What happened next is puzzling. The department reached a shocking conclusion, relayed to the residents of Ezra Prentice by research scientist Randi Walker at an August meeting: “The bottom line is that we didn't find anything that would be considered a health concern with these concentrations that we measured.”

The finding was so bizarre that David O. Carpenter, the director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the State University of New York at Albany, wrote a report about it. In that report, Carpenter calls the Department of Environmental Conservation’s conclusion “irresponsible.”

Carpenter also criticized the limited sampling done, saying, “It is scientifically insupportable for NYSDEC to draw any conclusions regarding potential human health risks in the South End based on such meager sampling.”

But there won’t be more sampling and the department’s research scientist Randi Walker was clear about that saying, “We didn't see anything that necessitated further sampling.”

Charlene Benton, president of the Ezra Prentice Homes Tenants Association, doesn’t agree. 

Dr. Carpenter’s report confirms what the people who live next door to the crude oil facilities at the Port of Albany have known all along: that the oil fumes from those facilities make people sick,” she said. “We don’t understand how DEC could have concluded that there are no public health issues without having spoken to a single resident of Ezra Prentice about what its like to live here and breathe this polluted air.”

This isn’t the first time the DEC has disappointed the residents of Ezra Prentice. Ezra Prentice is an environmental justice community, a designation given to communities with populations that have higher than average minority and low-income residents.

Of the approximately 25.8 million people who live within the one-mile evacuation boundary of oil train routes, 15.7 million (61 percent) potentially qualify as living in environmental justice communities, according to recent technical comments on the new proposed oil-by-rail regulations submitted by Earthjustice, ForestEthics, Sierra Club, NRDC and Oil Change International.

When Global Partners applied to the DEC for a permit to bring in 1.8 billion gallons of oil by rail per year into the Port of Albany, the department informed them that. “A determination will need to be made as to whether the project will result in potential adverse environmental impacts that are likely to affect this potential Environmental Justice area.”

Global Partners responded saying, “The proposed project will not have any adverse environmental impacts. As a result, no further environmental justice analysis is required.” 

The DEC appears to have accepted that statement and no environmental justice analysis was done. Additionally, no environmental impact statement was required by the DEC.

What happened in Albany is part of a pattern that has occurred across North America as new oil-by-rail facilities are approved. The oil companies say there will be no impact to the air quality and the regulators take their word for it.

In one of the more egregious examples, e-mails obtained by Reuters showed an Irving Oil official e-mailing the Department of the Environment saying that he did “not see any obvious requirement for an EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment)” regarding his company’s planned oil-by-rail facility in St John, New Brunswick. 

Two hours later the Department of Environment official wrote back agreeing that no EIA was needed. Much like in Albany, the residents near the Irving facility in St. John have complained about air quality issues, with one resident commenting to Reuters that the fumes can “burn your eyes.”

Similar situations have played out on the West Coast where multiple oil-by-rail facilities have been approved without environmental impact assessments. And when an environmental impact assessment is done, as in the case of the 360,000-barrel-per-day Tesero facility in Washington, it is being completed by consultants with ties to Tesero. 

John Echeverria, a national expert on environmental law and a professor at Vermont Law School, assessed the situation of the Tesero environmental impact assessment for The Columbian.

“It's par for the course in the corruption of the environmental analysis process in the United States,” Echeverria wrote.

The pattern that has emerged in oil-by-rail has been for regulators to give the green light to whatever the industry wants and then to wait to see if anyone notices. With 180 oil-by-rail facilities in North America and 50 under construction, it is likely that the impacts of this industry on air quality and human health are just beginning to surface.

Photo: Tank cars roll past the Ezra Prentice apartments in Albany, N.Y.

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Showing 6 reactions

commented 2014-10-15 14:04:16 -0400 · Flag
Absolutely – just as Jess says. A more comprehensive study needs to be done.
commented 2014-10-15 13:30:53 -0400 · Flag
Thank you for pointing out that this is an environmental justice issue that is not being handled appropriately; and that the testing showed there indeed was enough benzene emissions impact to health.

Benzene is just one chemical emitted, btw. Others haven’t been studied for health impacts and may not even be identified yet. There is a chemical soup used to frack that oil out of the ground; and it is shipped along with the crude.

I attended this meeting on August 14th. It showed that emissions were higher with temperature increase; but Randi Walker asserted that they had tested on warm enough days. I believe their latest date was May 21st and it was 68 degrees. Our summers get a lot hotter than that. I could be wrong, but I’m free to look it up on their website; because all people in environmental justice zones have free access to the internet (sarcasm). No documentation was provided; and the projection screen was unclear since the lights were on. And guess what, I can’t find the information on the website. I would direct people to the charts and slides because there are a couple very interesting findings.

They refused to identify any sources of emissions, saying that there are too many variables like traffic and wind.

She repeatedly talked about short-term health effects—saying there were none; but she avoided discussing long-term affects. We know living in a home for years is long-term. We want to know that the area is safe to live in, and will not have adverse affects on the health of the people living there.

She also noted that the tanks are empty when parked in front of Ezra Prentice. If this is indeed verified on a daily basis, the tanks still have residue left in them which off-gas into the environment. I know because I can smell it.

Then, there is the greater environmental justice community of anyone living 1/2-1 mile of the tracks anywhere in the state. Did they test all of these places? How about the places with the most population concentration?

We were reminded that this was not a health study. It was a baseline of air at this point—not of air before the sudden increase of oil transport throughout the state mind you. It was a baseline that could be used to note the differences in air quality should a new boiler be added by Global.

So, shouldn’t we demand a more comprehensive, long-term study?
commented 2014-10-14 13:07:03 -0400 · Flag
I was at the meeting that DEC proclaimed that the levels of benzene were nothing to worry about or necessitate further testing. I was as shocked as the rest of the audience. Anyone who brought up the discrepancy between what was found and what is safe, was rudely shut down. They will deny the disastrous impact on humans and environment until we the people make them stop. It is a simplistic psychological ploy – do it as long as you can get away with it. So we can’t let them get away with it and we need collaboration between all of our governmental agencies designed to protect us to meet that end. Together we CAN shut them down, and we MUST.
commented 2014-10-13 09:51:01 -0400 · Flag
Justin Mikulka gets it right, again. We hope the powers that be, Marc? Comm Joe? Cuomoccio? will someday get it right, too!
commented 2014-10-12 11:47:39 -0400 · Flag
This is best piece I’ve read on the environmental justice aspect of the bomb trains. It’s distributed nationally but the focus is on Albany. David G’s comments are always educational both factually and from a values point of view.
commented 2014-10-12 10:56:24 -0400 · Flag
The level of community acceptable risk is a political decision, not a scientific one. EPA says 100 in a million people getting a cancer or suffering health issues is acceptable to provide way for an industrialized nation that drives cars and has plastics and nylon, etc.

I always thought 1 in a million was the test, but would be much happier with 0 in a million. I understand this means changing the way we commute and eat and a few other things, but the adjustment is part of evolution and one of moral development and betterment as well. People call my actions “monastic” and “sadist” I see them as “smart” “informed” and “responsible.”

People can make their own decisions (eating meat, driving a car, etc.), but I hope those individuals are educated first and understand their daily choices impact the entirety of Nature and everything living and non-living things that is allowed (by Nature) to live within it.

Nature doesn’t need people. People need Nature.
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.