Mayor: DEC off on oil

Times Union | August 12, 2014 | Column by Brian Nearing

Sheehan says state agency illegally approved surge in oil shipments at Port of Albany

Oil tanker cars in the Port of Albany on Tuesday July 1, 2014 in Albany, N.Y. (Michael P. Farrell/Times Union)


Mayor Kathy Sheehan sharply rebuked the stateDepartment of Environmental Conservationover its review of a planned oil terminal expansion at the Port of Albany, claiming the state agency has illegally approved a surge in oil shipments piecemeal, rather than taking an overall perspective.

In a letter to DEC last month, the mayor accused DEC of something called segmentation, which is a review of a project's environmental impact in isolated segments, rather than as a unified whole. Segmentation is illegal under the state Environmental Quality Review Act.

Sheehan wrote DEC has not only segmented its review of plans by Massachusetts-based Global Partners to add a crude-oil heating facility to its terminal, but also segmented reviews over the last several years on permits that allowed Global and another company, Buckeye Partners of Houston, to increase crude oil traffic into the port from the Midwest from 1 billion gallons to 2.8 billion gallons.

Opponents of the Global heating plant fear it would be used to process Canadian tar sands oil, a dense type of crude that thickens in cold weather, making it difficult to pump out of rail tank cars and into tanks for eventual transfer to barges and tankers that go down the Hudson River.

The company applied to DEC for the heating project last year, and nearby residents have since grown increasingly vocal over safety concerns in light of a national spate of derailments, explosions and fires from crude oil trains, including one in Canada a year ago that killed 47 people.

There have been four such derailments in New York since then, but none involved explosions or spills. Such accidents have sparked fears among residents of Albany's South End, where the port is located. There, rail cars are stored close to residential areas, including the city-ownedEzra Prentice Homes housing project on South Pearl Street.

Noting that Global has modified its oil permit five times — each time with DEC ruling that plans had no significant environmental impact — Sheehan called it "the definition of illegal segmentation under SEQRA regulations."

She added that earlier DEC approvals of Global and Buckeye crude shipment expansions — again after DEC ruled the surge posed no significant environmental risk — came with "no analysis of the overall 2.8 billion gallons per year that may arrive at the Port of Albany ... DEC should examine the cumulative impacts of these projects in a more comprehensive fashion."

A Sheehan spokeswoman said the letter spoke for itself and the mayor had no further comment. The DEC press office did not provide comment in time for this story.

Under SEQRA, if a project is found to have an environmental impact — which can include impact to public health from accidents or catastrophic events — that finding triggers a detailed review called an environmental impact statement. So far, none of the Global or Buckeye permits have triggered such review.

The environmental legal group Earthjustice, which represents tenants at Ezra Prentice Homes, last month commenced legal action against DEC for allegedly not doing an adequate environmental review of the heating plant proposal before issuing a draft permit to Global.

As public pressure built, the state in March demanded that Global answer some 20 questions about fire risk, evacuation plans, spill response and insurance coverage for accidents. DEC also warned it could yank its November ruling that crude heating would have no negative impact on the environment — a step that would trigger a much more detailed state review.

In May, Global wrote a 32-page letter to the DEC with responses to the agency's March questions — and to contend that the DEC would be overstepping its bounds by linking the project to larger questions about the safety of surging rail transportation of highly volatile crude oil through Albany and elsewhere in the state. Global also challenged the usefulness of a DEC plan to test air pollution around the port.

The results of those tests are to be released by DEC at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at the Ezra Prentice Community Room, 625 S. Pearl St., Albany.

[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.