Is the Champlain Valley vulnerable to an oil train spill?

North Country Public Radio | May 2, 2014 | Column by David Sommerstein

Last year's deadly train explosion in Quebec put the potential dangers of so-called "oil trains" in the headlines. Trains now carry 160,000 barrels of crude oil from the Bakkan fields in North Dakota every day. Many of them roll through North Country towns on their way to refineries on the East Coast.

Tanker cars outside the depot in the village of Port Henry. Photo: Brian Mann

Much of the attention so far has focused on the human risk. But on Wednesday, another derailment and explosion in Lynchburg, Virginia, spilled thousands of gallons of crude into the James River, threatening clean water supplies and wildlife.

Green groups called it "a wake up call" to the environmental dangers of shipping crude oil by rail.

One of the rail lines for oil shipments in New York State runs right through the Champlain Valley, in some places just feet from Lake Champlain. About one hundred miles of track cut along the edge of the Adirondack Park.

The towns along Lake Champlain – hamlets like Westport, Whallonsburg, and Crown Point – are long familiar with the blare of the locomotive's horn. The rail line now owned by Canadian Pacific is a major route between Montreal and New York City.

Even trains skidding off those rails is not unheard of. "Derailments do happen," says Tom Scozzafava, the town of Moriah's longtime supervisor and a lifelong resident of Port Henry. "I've seen in my lifetime, right in the general area, at least four derailments."

Standing next to the tracks that pass yards from the town hall and old depot, where the senior citizen center is now, Scozzafava remembers the winter of 1995, when a train derailed just north of town. Cars carrying grain, concrete, and wooden two-by-fours actually tumbled into Lake Champlain. "There was still ice on the lake, so it was a tough area to clean up, to get the cars upright and get them out of there."

Scozzafava and several other people say a couple of those railcars are still down there. Anglers say all that grain has made for great fishing. But if such an accident happened today, it is very likely the cargo would be volatile crude oil from North Dakota. That oil is laced with heavy metals, arsenic, and other toxic materials. And the tankers carrying most of that crude, called DOT-111s, are prone to puncture, spill oil, and explode.

Scozzafava says in summer, the shores of Lake Champlain are crowded with campers and seasonal homeowners. An oil spill or explosion would be a disaster. "Absolutely, it's a major concern," Scozzafava says. "Our fire departments right now are working on a plan for evacuation, that in the event that something happens, how do we get the people out of those areas? Obviously, there's only one way, and that's by water."

An oil spill on the water, as happened this week on the James River in Virginia, would complicate that emergency response. It would contaminate thousands of people's drinking water. And it would devastate the Lake Champlain ecosystem, including its tributaries. The railroad tracks also cross the Saranac, Ausable, and Boquet Rivers, says Adirondack Council spokesman John Sheehan.

"An oil tanker car, which is generally the size of a tractor trailer, losing its oil into any of those places would be a tragedy we would never recover from, "says Sheehan. "This is something that would cause permanent damage. We'd be hard-pressed to do anything to remediate it for a very long time."

An oil spill could particularly hurt the lake's fish populations, and the multimillion dollar fishing industry that relies on them. Mark Malchoff studies the fishery for Lake Champlain Sea Grant at SUNY Plattsburgh. "Things like northern pike spawn in cattail marshes," Malchoff says. "Near-shore areas are important habitat for yellow perch, bass, and walleye, all species that we're familiar with. So any near-shore, shallow water impacts would definitely impact those species." 

The company that owns the rail line, Canadian Pacific, says it has a comprehensive emergency response plan in place. CP spokesman Ed Greenberg says that includes evacuation procedures and live-training on the water, including during icy conditions.

"Certainly part of this whole process is regularly updating our emergency response plans," says Greenberg, "not only internally, but with local first responders. This has included participating in a full scale drill on Lake Champlain in which we were involved."

CP upset some officials at a meeting in Elizabethtown in March when it wouldn't publicly share its emergency plan with local first responders, citing national security concerns over potential terrorism. Greenberg says the plan has since been shared in private.


But the Adirondack Council's John Sheehan says the public needs to know more. "While there's a national security issue, I think it's also important to remember there's a real local security issue, and one that may be much more immediate."

Some first responders have complained CP hasn't been proactive enough in sharing information. Port Henry Fire Chief Jim Hughes said it took weeks for CP to provide a list of hazardous materials the trains routinely carry.

But Clinton County emergency services director Eric Day downplays the need for that information. He says first responders are always preparing to deal with anything from crude oil and ethanol to propane and toxic chemicals.

"The railroad moves things that are just as, if not more, hazardous routinely, and has for years," Day says. "Those are things that, in the first response community, we try to stay aware of and understand and watch what they're moving."

Nationwide attention has now focused on those inadequate DOT-111 tankers that carry most of the crude. The National Transportation Safety Board called for them to be replaced almost five years ago. But departing NTSB chairman Deborah Hersman told NPR's Morning Edition they would cost billions to replace or retrofit. She said new, stronger-hulled tankers would further hurt the bottom line, and that's why regulatory action has dragged.

"Follow the money. It all comes back to the money," Hersman told NPR. "Making these heavier stronger tank cars reduces the amount of product that can be put in the cars."

New York Senator Chuck Schumer has been pushing hard for new safety rules for the industry, including retrofitting DOT-111s as soon as possible. "The oil companies and the railroad companies are making record dollars with these new shipments. They can take a little of those dollars to make them safe."

This week, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced New York is continuing to ramp up inspections of rail cars and tracks that carry crude oil. Previous inspections have found several dozen incidents of defective, broken, or missing equipment.

Cuomo also wrote a letter to President Barack Obama this week urging the White House to implement new train safety rules. And the state released a new report on train safety in New York.

Meanwhile, Global Partners, the company that operates the Port of Albany's crude oil terminal, announced it will accept only new, safer oil tanker cars, starting in June.

For now, Moriah town supervisor Tom Scozzafava remains worried about the safety of people who live just yards from the tracks. And he worries about the threat of an oil spill into the lake similar to what happened this week in Virginia. "Who's going to come to Lake Champlain for vacation or recreation if you can't get your toes wet?" asks Scozzafava.

Local leaders all along the Champlain Valley hope federal regulators will crack down on oil train safety before they have to answer that question.

Brian Mann helped produce this story. David's reporting was done in collaboration with Adirondack Explorer magazine.

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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.