LeBrun: Raising an alarm about crucial state decisions on oil train shipments

Times Union | May 30, 2015 | Column by Fred LeBrun

Consider this column as an alarm bell ringing.

This region, this state, is at a crucial tipping point over the menace posed by the soaring invasion of railroaded crude oil in this state. What the state does in the very near future will determine whether we control that menace and put reasonable brakes on it, or are utterly controlled by it. The latter would open the door to unspeakable consequences for millions of New Yorkers and our most precious environmental resources -— in which case all we could do, should the unspeakable happen as it has in other places not so far away, is lament and wonder how we could be so stupid to allow it.

Lamenting has its place, but prevention is better.

What the state must do, through its acting authority, the Department of Environmental Conservation, is finally, finally require a full environmental impact statement from Big Oil, represented by shipper Global Associates of Massachusetts, assessing the impact of the millions of gallons of crude coming into this state. Not just for the Global facility at the Port of Albany; not just for the seven boilers Global is trying to get permitted in order to heat predictably the next type of crude to invade us; but for every inch of rail line in New York State, for every water body and community affected. Show us the risks. Show us the specific cleanup plans, the mitigation plans. Let's see where the reparation money would come from, who's insured and who isn't, and how much we'd actually need if there were a spill.

On Friday, an expert panel appointed by Albany County executive Dan McCoy to look into crude oil safety issues released a 19-page comprehensive report outlining a host of federal, state and local recommendations. Key among them is a call for a full environmental impact statement on Global's proposal, and even goes so far as to urge DEC Commissioner Joe Martens to use his authority to halt the receipt and storage of crude oil at the Port in existing tank cars known to have safety issues. That would spin a few heads. Lawsuits would no doubt fly, but so what?

We're at a tipping point because we are on a cusp. The boilers Global seeks to get permitted can only be for heating and moving Alberta tar sands. Any environmental assessment has to include the full and cumulative consequences of those tar sands added to the activity we have now.

At the moment, Albany is a hub for about a quarter of all the Bakken light crude coming out of North Dakota, a volatile mix of oil, explosive and inflammable gases which pose great risks to us already. This is the same stuff that killed 47 in a fiery explosion at Lac Magentic in Quebec. And stupefyingly, the same inadequate, unsafe rail cars in that explosion are the ones parked for miles in the city of Albany back up through Watervliet and Cohoes.

The federal government with jurisdiction over rail traffic recognizes how unsafe those cars are, but is notoriously slow in imposing improvements. Our state wrings its hands and uses the feds as an excuse for failing to address these safety issues to any meaningful degree. But the state could do more — and should. Our public and environmental health and safety demand it.

If the influx of Bakken has been worrisome, we ain't seen nothin' yet. Tar sands oil, while not being explosive or flammable, poses staggering risks of its own from just what we know about it. Environmentally it's the worst. It's the consistency of asphalt and sinks in water. It would be virtually impossible to recover from a Hudson River out of a ruptured barge delivering it to the refinery, or from what Neil Woodworth, director of the Adirondack Mountain Club, calls the most vulnerable water body in the state to an oil spill — Lake Champlain. There's nearly 80 miles of ancient track and bridges right on the shoreline.

But it's what we don't fully know about heating tar sands, or the alternative to heating, which is adding a cocktail of nasty solvents to make it transportable (and even more dangerous for our water bodies), that's really scary. Global has been vague on what happens next at the port, or the volume anticipated, or what the industry's experiences are with the process Global envisions with the high-sulphur, high-carbon tar sands. Or what the real impacts will be on residents nearby, such as at the Ezra Prentice Homes.

Not knowing is at the core of why the DEC unexpectedly rescinded a negative declaration of environmental impact on May 21 that would have cleared the way for Global to get its boilers permitted.

The DEC is to be praised for that action, but they had to be dragged to it kicking and screaming. There was an effort made by the DEC to slip one by on us, and permit Global with a few conditions but no real scrutiny or environmental assessment.

But you can thank a resolute Albany County executive, who wouldn't budge on the county's moratorium of Global's expansion plans at the port on health and public safety grounds, and by the direct involvement of the federal Environmental Protection Agency's New York City office that by letter recently questioned the DEC's lax permitting process along similar lines. The EPA has oversight authority. Suddenly, the ball's in play again.

Global's response to the DEC's notice of a rescinded negative declaration is expected this week. Oil will probably want as narrow an environmental review as they can sneak through, or better yet, none at all.

So on this important issue, for the state and the DEC, this is the moment of truth. We will soon learn who they really work for, them or us.

[email protected] • 518-454-5453


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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.