Off the Rails

Metroland | February 26, 2015 | Column by Ali Hibbs

West Virginia explosion fuels efforts to ban dangerous oil tankers and increase oversight at Port of Albany

photo by Ali Hibbs

“It’s not if, it’s when,” repeated a small crowd of activists gathered outside Albany City Hall in frigid temperatures last Thursday. Bearing signs that read “What Will It Take?” and “Is Albany Next?” they were there to protest the growing volume of tanker trains on local tracks carrying the same highly combustible Bakken crude from North Dakota that derailed and exploded in West Virginia earlier last week.

Recent, highly visible derailments—and consequent conflagrations—have reignited nationwide concerns about the dubious safety of the tankers that carry perilously volatile materials by rail through heavily populated areas and close to public waterways, as well as the practices and regulations followed by the shipping industry. The events have wrought statements from officials throughout New York state government and caused environmental groups and activists like those who stood before City Hall last week to urge the outright prohibition of certain storage and shipping methods that have proven especially hazardous.

The recent rise in the number of oil tankers on local tracks and expanded use of the Port of Albany for the shipping of highly combustible material has those who live and work in nearby communities more than a little apprehensive about their own safety, as well as increasingly concerned for the safety of their children, their neighbors and their friends.

Sandy Steubing is a vocal member of PAUSE (People of Albany United for Safe Energy), the local grassroots organization aimed at environmental justice and sustainable energy that organized the protest at City Hall last week. Steubing lives within the one-mile evacuation zone recommended in the event of an oil train explosion by the U.S. Dept. of Transportation. “I live near the Honest Weight Food Co-op,” she said. “Maybe a third of a mile from the tracks that run by there.” Steubing said that leaves her outside of the quarter-mile radius within which an explosion would likely incinerate any homes (and humans) but it still leaves her open to considerable structural damage and exposure to toxic fumes if an explosion were to occur on (or off) the rails near her home.

Penelope Krebs doesn’t live in any of the “blast zone” communities here in the Capital Region, but she says that she was among the first to notice the build-up of tankers on tracks in Albany’s South End leading to the Port of Albany. “I think it’s horrible,” she said. “I feel like some of those communities were moved down there as a result of the construction of Empire State Plaza, there are many who can’t afford to leave and now to subject them to this kind of danger—it feels like a devaluation of human lives.”

Krebs also said that the frequency of incidents involving oil spills—which occur far more often  than the incendiary incidents—has even caused her to reconsider her opposition to the Keystone XL Pipeline. “Rail shipments are far more dangerous,” said Krebs. “They’re more likely to jeopardize people and the environment, since so much of the rails are located along rivers. Just look at what happened  last week.”

According to the Center for Biological Diversity, there are 3,600 stream miles and 73,468 square miles of lakes, reservoirs and wetlands within one quarter-mile of existing and planned oil traffic routes nationally, including Lake Michigan, Lake Erie, Lake Champlain, and the Columbia, Hudson and Mississippi rivers. The same report also revealed that the trains pass through 34 national wildlife refuges and within a quarter-mile of protected critical habitat for 57 threatened or endangered species.

The tankers that ruptured in West Virginia last week, causing thick smoke and flames that lasted for days, were not the outdated, commonly condemned DOT-111 cars that the federal government has already recommended upgrading—they were newer CPC-1232 models that were supposedly more impervious to the puncture and fire hazards that are associated with the DOT-111s. The problem, noted U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) in a statement Thursday,  is that the newer models are only a very slight improvement over the older ones and not sufficiently equipped to prevent similar future tragedies. Schumer has called on the federal government to hasten its timeline for considering more stringent regulations, including the adoption of standard requirements that would prohibit use of CPC-1232 cars, which he says would not meet even the weakest of the three standards that have been proposed.

“Yet again, we have seen a rupture-prone rail car carrying volatile crude oil wreak havoc on a community,” said Schumer. “And it further demonstrates that the federal Department of Transportation and Office of Management and Budget must release tough, comprehensive rail car standards to help avoid a future tragedy . . . and I am urging them to work with OMB to get those rules out the door—now.”

Members of the Albany County Legislature had already signed a proclamation prior to last week’s events, “requesting full transparency and greater scrutiny from NYS Department of Environmental Conservation regarding Global Partners’ Port of Albany Proposal,” in which the company has requested permission to install boilers intended to heat flammable oil in a process that would facilitate transfer and shipping. They called on the DEC to assess environmental impact, answer questions, and urge DEC Commissioner Joe Martens to use a measure called “summary abatement” to outright ban the receipt and storage of Bakken crude in DOT-111 tankers at the Port of Albany. County legislators Doug Bullock (8th District) and Merton Simpson (2nd District) joined the activists urging city legislators to follow suit at City Hall on Thursday.

“As the recent explosion in West Virginia demonstrates, this is an issue that is not going away and deserves our full attention from every level of government—local, all the way up to federal,” said county Legislator Chris Higgins (5th District). “Our county proclamation as well as legislation we will pass shortly to increase fines for reporting violations by these companies are a step towards trying to get a handle on this issue.” Reporting violations, according to Bullock, is another significant problem with local shippers.

Albany County Executive Dan McCoy has long been an outspoken critic of the hazards of oil trains at the port, championing increased regulation and oversight and insisting on better reporting times from rail employees when even minor oil spills occur. Other local  legislators, such as state Assemblyman Phil Steck (D-Colonie), have issued statements in the wake of multiple incidents this year calling for greater transparency and  regulation. Mayor Kathy Sheehan says she has convened a task force and that she is working closely with DEC.

An estimated 25 million people in the United States live within the one-mile evacuation zone recommended by the federal Department of Transportation, which predicts that trains hauling crude oil or ethanol will derail an average of 10 times a year over the next two decades. They expect this will result in more than $4 billion in damage and say that hundreds of people could be killed if an accident happens in a densely populated area.

With the amount of highly combustible crude now being shipped through Albany, there are many who don’t like those odds.

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commented 2015-02-28 19:29:54 -0500 · Flag
What a great long post with lots of background on the oil trains. Thank you, Ali Hibbs of Metroland.
@PAUSEnergy tweeted this page. 2015-02-28 18:24:48 -0500
PAUSE, People of Albany United for Safe Energy posted about Off the Rails on PAUSE, People of Albany United for Safe Energy's Facebook page 2015-02-28 18:24:48 -0500
Off the Rails
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.