Explosive crude oil not tested in New York

Capital NY | April 8, 2014 | Column by Scott Waldman

ALBANY—Though state authorities started targeted inspections of trains carrying crude oil through New York a few months ago, the state is not yet testing the billions of gallons of crude oil itself.

The oil is thought to be highly volatile, and the trains being used to move it around are typically the same ones used for shipping nonhazardous materials.

What's more, many firefighters in communities where crude oil trains zip along tracks every day have not been informed about how to handle an accident and will need extra training, said Michael McManus, president of the 18,000-member New York State Professional Fire Fighters Association. 

“We are very concerned,” he said.

First responders are not the only ones unprepared for a possible derailment. Even the company that is bringing in the crude shipments, Global Companies of Massachusetts, has admitted that it may not have enough insurance to cover a catastrophic accident, according to filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

“We are not fully insured against all risks incident to our business,” company officials wrote in the 2012 S.E.C. report.

Global was recently fined $117,292 by Oregon for moving far more oil through its terminals allowed. It is not clear if state regulators in New York have conducted similar checks of the volume of crude moving through here, which went from none a few years ago to billions of gallons now.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo included a provision in the state budget to double the number of rail inspectors from five to ten.

State and federal inspectors targeting some of the hubs for oil transportation in the state, including Albany, have turned up dozens of violations. They include faulty train car brakes and wheels. Inspections of a few miles of rail lines found a host of problems, including rail lines that needed to be replaced.

The Bakken crude oil coming through New York is about as volatile as gasoline, according to recent samples of crude in other states. Crude transported by Global Companies—which is approved to bring more than two billion gallons through New York—in Oregon found that it contains high amounts of flammable propane and butane, according to an analysis by the Oregonian newspaper. It's largely transported in DOT-111 rail cars, which were designed to haul corn syrup and molasses and likely to rupture on impact, according to federal regulators.

New York is not alone among states in declining to test crude that travels in trains that speed by communities and along rivers and other bodies of water.

Still, state officials are now asking the federal government to require new standards to test the properties of crude oil shipped by rail and to implement more stringent handling requirements, said Emily DeSantis, spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

Currently, small placards on the outside of train cars are the only indication of what is inside, but the Cuomo administration is how also asking railroads to provide additional identifiers to tank car placards so that local first responders understand the type of crude oil being transported.

As part of the conditions for approval of an air permit for a proposed boiler facility in Albany, the state is asking Global whether the company, its rail carriers or the producer of the crude oil is sampling the contents of the oil tank cars. The state is also asking Global if it will share the type and volume of crude being processed in Albany at its new facility. Boilers are used to heat heavy crude, such as that from the tar sands of Western Canada, which does not currently move through Albany.

Trains have blown up in North Dakota and Canada in the last year, and 47 people were killed when a train exploded in Quebec this summer.


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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.