City panel off course on trains

Times Union | June 22, 2015 | Commentary by Sandy Steubing

Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan's "blue ribbon" committee on oil trains delivered a report in late May after 10 months of study. While I found the panel's praise for the inadequate federal regulations objectionable, many of its recommendations were offensive.

Here's a green ribbon response to the blue ribbon report.

The panel called for "Increasing the knowledge of actions that individuals can take to improve their own health, including ... training for the prevention of asthma/wheeze attacks and support for good respiratory health and chronic disease care."

That's a nice idea on the surface, except that volatile organic compounds that accompany the oil trains are a cause of respiratory illness. Best practices tells us to remove known causes of respiratory ailment (the VOCs from the trains) to improve health. Yet the panel is not calling for a stop to the oil trains. An industrial area such as the Port of Albany is extremely challenging to the most healthy among us let alone children, pregnant women and the elderly.

The committee suggested establishing "a Community Benefits Agreement between CSX and Canadian Pacific with impacted communities residing in close proximity to railroads such as Ezra Prentice to mitigate implications of oil transport (i.e. sound barriers, scholarship funds, landscaping)."

The most distasteful bargain in this proposal is the idea of scholarships and jobs in exchange for people's vulnerability from the oil trains. Basically, the panel is asking the perpetrators of these unsafe conditions (railroad companies and fossil fuel industry) to pay off their victims. The assumption is that our fellow Albanians do not deserve scholarships and jobs unless they pay with their ill health, maybe their lives.

Rather than fossil fuel jobs, green jobs such as building retrofits and solar installations would be beneficial to the employees, the city and the planet. A precise plan to achieve this goal was proposed by world-class scientists at Cornell and Stanford in their 2013 study outlining the path to 100 percent renewable energy in New York state by 2030.

Another example: The report recommended creation of "an information channel ... to inform city residents of best practices in the event of an incident either adjacent to the port of Albany or any related facility in the city."

This isn't complicated; only one directive is needed: Run uphill. In July 2013, the blast zone of the explosive derailment in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, was nearly half a mile.

The report also states that "a sound/safety barrier would be an action that can be undertaken immediately and will be a show of good faith to the community."

Building a wall will look like we've done something, when we know these barriers do nothing to protect the residents on the other side of trains from any of the health and safety issues the panel is supposed to be addressing. Is this the strongest pledge our city government is willing to make to us? A wall will not stop many VOCs, and absolutely would not protect anyone from an explosion.

The green goals of the Albany 2030 plan have been replaced by Big Oil with a Big Assist from the Department of Environmental Conservation and the city. Instead of a path to financial and energy independence with green jobs, we are taking all the risk — with no benefits — from the onslaught of these trains. We have been put in a situation of Russian roulette wondering if Albany is next. At best, this blue ribbon report is lame and effectual. At worse it is an insult. In his column, Fred LeBrun sounded the alarm about crude by rail. Unfortunately, the blue ribbon panel isn't listening.

Sandy Steubing, of Albany, is spokeswoman for People of Albany United for Safe Energy.

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From our very own Sandy Steubing: City panel off course on trains
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.