Capital Region rally recalls Quebec oil train disaster

Times Union | July 7, 2014 | Column by Matthew Hamilton

Albany residents recall Quebec disaster and rally against increase in oil trains

Photographs of those killed in the Lac Megantic oil train disaster are seen on a fence during a vigil at the Ezra Prentice Homes on Sunday, July 6, 2014, in Albany, N.Y., to remember the Lac Megantic oil train disaster that occurred a year ago in which 47 people died when a runaway train derailed and exploded. (Paul Buckowski / Times Union)


Willie White only had time to speak a few words before the crash of freight train couplers drowned him out.

White — the executive director of A Village, an advocacy group — was trying to deliver opening remarks at Sunday evening's Lac-Megantic vigil at the Ezra Prentice Homes in the South End. Instead, a train less than a football field away interrupted as it moved just enough to block the view of matte black tanker cars sitting on the other side of the tracks — the same cars roughly 100 people gathered to rally against during the memorial.

"I think they are trying to block the bomb trains," he told the crowd. "But we know they are there."

The crash of couplers has become a familiar sound for residents of the apartment complex, which is separated by only a chain-link fence from a set of train tracks that feed the Port of Albany. Sunday's ceremony hit two topics: memorializing the Lac-Megantic disaster and the need for officials to put the brakes on the increasing number of trains carrying Bakken crude oil that have begun to rumble into the port.

"Sure," said Tammy Miller, a nearby resident, of whether a possible derailment is on her mind, "that boom, boom, boom, boom as they go by. I'm just hoping and praying it doesn't happen."

The Lac-Megantic derailment provided a window into what could happen if a catastrophic oil train derailment were to occur. In the pre-dawn hours of July 6, 2013, an unattended Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway train hurtled downhill toward the heart of the roughly 6,000-resident Quebec town not far from the Maine border. Sixty-three of the train's 72 oil-filled tanker cars derailed, touching off an explosion that leveled downtown blocks while some residents slept and others reveled at the packed Musi-Cafe, where more than half of the 47 victims died.

There have been no serious incidents since trains carrying Bakken crude oil have been through the area, though already this year there have been two minor derailments and a spill at the port. In late February, 13 tank cars carrying crude oil on a CSX train derailed at the Selkirk rail yard. No one was injured and no oil spills were reported in that incident. In May, four cars from a Canadian Pacific Railroad train carrying crude oil derailed in Albany.

While there were no spills, the railroad waited almost five hours to report the incident, leading to the state Department of Transportation to fine the company $5,000 for failure to report the derailment within the one hour required.

At the end of last month, an estimated 100 gallons of oil spilled from a rail car at a transfer facility at the Port of Albany, though officials said the spillage posed no danger to nearby residents or the environment. The accident was not derailment related.

Albany County Executive Dan McCoy's administration has been proactive in dealing with oil-related activity at the Port of Albany, issuing in March a moratorium on the growth of oil infrastructure. At Sunday's vigil, McCoy reiterated his support for efforts to prevent a major disaster.

McCoy was joined by Rep. Paul D. Tonko and a handful of Albany Common Councilmembers, including Vivian Kornegay, who represents the 2nd Ward, where the Ezra Prentice apartments sit close to the tracks. Kornegay said the oil train issue is a global one and called upon those gathered to not be deterred from speaking out about the issue by business interests that benefit financially from the trains.

In a fiery 20-minute sermon, McKinnley Johnson, pastor of St. John's Church of God in Christ, which also is only blocks from the railroad tracks, made impassioned pleas for residents to call for change. He also charged that the proximity of the trains and the lack of information in recent years as the numbers have increased is environmental racism.

He also made pointed comments aimed at Global Partners, which runs a terminal facility at the port and has proposed an expansion of its existing complex and the construction of a heating plant to make it easier to transfer oil from tanker cars.

"We don't need a boiler over there," Johnson said pointing toward the port as the crowd clapped and cheered.

While pieces of the ceremony took on rally overtones, those assembled also memorialized the people who died in Lac-Megantic last summer.

The vigil included the reading of the names of the 47 people who died. The victims' photos were hung along a black metal fence behind the pulpit on the basketball court next to the apartment complex. In Lac-Megantic, the victims were memorialized earlier Sunday with a late-night vigil and procession through the town that was attended by more than 1,000 people and a Sunday morning Mass, according to news reports.

But while those ceremonies took place hundreds of miles away, Johnson called those who died the sisters and brothers of those assembled in Albany. That theme is one Kornegay drove home as she called for her constituents to make their voices heard about the oil trains that run through their neighborhood.

"We don't want to have a memorial service memorializing our Ezra Prentice residents," she said. "We refuse."

[email protected] • 518-454-5449 • @matt_hamilton10

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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.