Crude oil spill planners meet in Albany

Times Union | April 9, 2014 | Column by Brian Nearing


Every day, millions of gallons of crude oil move through New York state, on massive tanker trains or on the Hudson River on barges or tankers. And it might be time for officials to get a real-time picture of where all that crude is.

The flood of oil from the Bakken fields of North Dakota has been building for two years now, and on Wednesday, several dozen state and federal officials met in Albany to discuss how to be better prepared in the event some crude is accidentally spilled, or worse, catches fire and explodes.

Currently, there is no easy way for officials to know where crude shipments are at any given time. But such a surveillance system is needed now and ought to be developed, said Eric Mosher, branch chief for response and prevention of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

"We want to know where this oil is," said Mosher, during a break from the Regional Response Team II spring annual meeting. Headed by EPA and the U.S. Coast Guard, the team includes the state Department of Environmental Conservation and Emergency Management Office, as well as the federal agencies for transportation, agriculture, labor, commerce, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

DEC Commissioner Joe Martens said the state will work to "increase coordination between EPA and DEC regarding spill prevention and storage facility inspections, as well as unannounced preparedness exercises by our two agencies in high priority areas."

As concerns grew over crude oil shipments in the aftermath of a spate of derailments of oil trains, several of which caused explosions and fires, the state asked the EPA and the Coast Guard last month to update its oil spill plans for the Hudson, which were scheduled to be next updated in 2015.

In January, Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered Martens and other state agency heads to report to him by April 30 on how prepared the state is to handle a crude oil spill "by rail, ship or barge."

Mosher said EPA's spill plan for coastal areas will be updated in 2014. He said the federal plans "are still adequate, but we want to get a better idea of the scope of the problem, and some of the nuances. The plans are good, it is more a matter of enhancing them."

The Port of Albany has become a major transit hub for incoming crude oil trains from the Bakken fields of North Dakota. Two oil terminal owners have state permission to handle up to 2.8 billion gallons of crude annually that is brought in on trains by freight railroads CSX and Canadian Pacific.

Chad Livingston, an official with Canadian Pacific, said that CP trains have a 10-mile-per-hour speed limit while passing through the city of Albany to minimize the possibility of a derailment.

"While the risk is still there for some type of spill, it is a lot less" than the tanker train derailment and explosion that killed 47 people last year in Quebec, he said. "All the stars aligned for that one. It was a very random event."

Last year, there were also oil train derailments, explosions and fires in North Dakota and Alabama, but no injuries. There have been four tanker car derailments in New York in the last year — including one in CSX's sprawling Selkirk rail yard south of Albany — but no fires or injuries.

Both Livingston and Michael Bethge, a safety official with CSX, said their companies' trains have carried only Bakken crude into Albany so far. One of the terminal owners there, Global Partners, of Waltham, Mass., is seeking a state air pollution permit to build a facility that will heat crude to make it easier to pump out rail cars and into barges for the trip south down the Hudson.

The proposed heating facility has drawn speculation that Global is intending to accept Canadian tar sands oil, a type of crude that is heavier and thicker than Bakken crude, and that must be heated at cold temperatures to make it flow.

Tar sands oil also presents a difficult challenge to clean up after spills in water, but the crude is heavier than water and sinks to the bottom.

DEC has extended its review of that permit request amid safety concerns by residents of Albany's South End near the port.

Global also wants state permission to open a rail yard at its oil terminal on the river near Newburgh in Orange County to unload crude onto barges or ships. DEC has also raised questions on that proposal.

[email protected] • 518-454-5094 • @Bnearing10

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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.