Cuomo administration calls for federal help on oil trains

Capital New York | April 30, 2014 | Column by Scott Waldman

ALBANY—New York wants a lot more help from Washington to deal with the onslaught of oil trains now traversing the state.

Andrew Cuomo. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

On Wednesday, the state released an oil-train safety report that Gov. Andrew Cuomo requested in a January executive order.

The report recommends that New York secure better information about the volume and characteristics of crude oil being transported here, develop a database of emergency response equipment and strengthen regulations for handling crude oil in preparation for the possibility of spills.

In January, Cuomo issued an executive order asking five state agencies—the Department of Environmental Conservation, the Department of Transportation, the Division of Homeland Security, the Department of Health and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority—to assess the New York's ability to handle a recent surge in the traffic of oil trains, which now carry 160,000 barrels of oil every day.

The report calls on the industry to provide a more thorough risk analysis of the crude oil being shipped here, remove dissolved gases before shipment and to develop a web-based system that tracks trains carrying hazardous material in real time.

Most notably, though, the report throws responsibility for monitoring the oil trains traveling along a thousand miles of New York's rails to the federal government.

Cuomo released a letter to the Obama administration requesting that the federal government remove inadequate tank cars from service, strengthen safety measures, expedite the formation of oil-spill response plans and increase testing of Bakken crude.

“While rail transportation of crude oil has risen dramatically, federal regulations and safety precautions have lagged behind,” Cuomo said in a statement.

Railroads are governed by federal law, making it a challenge to regulate the movement of trains within a state. However, the United States has now surpassed Saudi Arabia as the world's leading crude oil producer and more than 400,000 oil trains are rolling along the nation's tracks, up from fewer than 10,000 just five years ago.

New York, and in particular the Port of Albany, have emerged as a major hub for transportation in recent years. That has created a de facto virtual pipeline of oil trains, and 82 percent of the cars transporting crude have been deemed deficient. New York's rail lines handle about 16 percent of the total annual output of the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota, one of the world's largest formations.

Still, state officials already toughened their approach to companies transporting crude here, by threatening to revoke previous approvals if the companies did not provide more information. The state doubled the amount of freight inspectors and has targeted rail yards and hundreds of oil trains with more aggressive and frequent checks.

The Department of Environmental Conservation sent a list of 29 questions to the Massachusetts-based Global Companies that must be answered before the state approves air permits needed for crude handling facilities at the Port of Albany. Global's proposed expansion of a crude offloading facility in New Windsor is similarly stalled under intense state scrutiny. Global officials pledged to work with the state on its questions, but have not yet answered any of the questions around the issue, some of which seek basic information like the origination of the crude it wants to bring through New York as part of a proposed heating facility.

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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.