New York steps up crude-by-rail spill response, monitoring

Associated Press (via The Legislative Gazette) | May 28, 2015 | Report by Mary Esch

New York's Department of Environmental Conservation says it's stepping up air monitoring at the Port of Albany and enhancing spill response capabilities along rail corridors to reduce health and environmental risks stemming from crude oil transport through the state.

The measures announced by DEC Commissioner Joseph Martens on Wednesday have been advocated for several years by environmental groups and community residents along crude oil rail transport routes and near the Port of Albany, which has become a major hub for oil shipments.

Martens said the DEC will develop geographic response plans and deploy specialized spill response equipment such as oil-absorbent booms and pumps along rail corridors used to move crude oil.

"This is great news," said John Lipscomb of Riverkeeper, an organization focused on protecting the Hudson River. "We've been talking to federal and state agencies about this for several years and asking specifically for spill response assets to be pre-positioned and local first-responders trained. Everyone acknowledges that with crude oil spills, speed is critical."

Martens said the agency is working with state and local agencies in 21 counties to complete in-depth reviews of sensitive resources along the crude-by-rail transport corridors to determine where spill response equipment is needed.

The response plans for all 21 counties are to be finished by April 2016.

Lipscomb said the pre-staging of equipment and training of first-responders should be expanded to include protection of sensitive areas on both banks of the Hudson River along the 155 mile estuary from New York City to Troy. Currently, spill response on the Hudson is deployed from only three points, in Albany, Newburgh and New York Harbor, he said.

The port air monitoring plan is in response to neighbors' concerns over increased crude-handling there. The Port of Albany has become a major hub for shipments of crude oil from North Dakota's Bakken Shale region, which arrives via 100-car trains and is transferred to Hudson River barges destined for coastal refineries.

A fuel transport company at the port is seeking a state air quality permit so it can install seven boilers to heat tanker cars carrying dense, heavy crude from the tar sands of western Canada. That type of crude, known as bitumen, has a relatively high level of hydrogen sulfide and other sulfur compounds, prompting concerns about adverse health impacts, odors and corrosion.

This summer, DEC said it will begin a systematic air monitoring study for hydrogen sulfide in the Port of Albany.

The agency has also expanded its statewide air toxics network to include a site near the port that will record levels of benzene, formaldehyde and other pollutants associated with industrial activities including handling of petroleum products. Results of that monitoring will be available by late September.

"These steps are good, but what is now needed is a full impact analysis that assesses the risks before we allow any more types of oil to flow through," said Peter Iwanowicz, executive director of Environmental Advocates of New York.

This year's state budget raised the state's Oil Spill Fund cap from $25 million to $40 million and also provided up to $2.1 million annually to plan and prepare for potential crude oil incidents.

The budget also increased the surcharge for oil transshipped through the state from 1.5 cents per barrel to 13.75 cents.

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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.