Oil trains pass within one mile of many North Country schools

North Country Public Radio | August 7, 2014 | Column by Claire Woodcock

After last summer's deadly oil train disaster in Quebec, more and more questions are being raised about the tanker trains passing through small towns here in northern New York.

Bakken crude oil train next to children's playground at Ezra Prentince Houses in Albany. Photo by Jenna Flanagan

A growing number of tanker trains roll every day through the St. Lawrence and Champlain valleys, often bound for the shipping port on the Hudson River in Albany.

Now, two advocacy groups have published a series of maps showing that those rail shipment routes pass near dozens of public schools.

There's been a huge spike in the number of crude oil trains moving through small towns and cities here in the North Country. That's raised concern among local government leaders, residents and emergency responders. Now, a new map released Wednesday by environmental and health groups say at least 75 schools lie within a mile of those rail lines.


Claire Barnett heads theHealthy Schools Network, one of the groups that created the map. She says that if a massive oil train derails near an occupied school, it could devastate a community.

“I think there are a lot of problems here that need to get explored," Barnett says. "There are many different risks to many communities, but above all, there are really extraordinary risks to children.”

Barnett spoke Wednesday on the public radio program Capital Pressroom. The maps were created by her group and the Natural Resources Defense Counsel.

Cynthia Ford-Johnston is the new interim Superintendent at Westport Central School. Her district has an emergency plan in place in case of a toxic spill, but she says the sight of more and more oil trains rolling past raises new concerns.

“I’ve been watching them go down the tracks on a daily basis back and forth. Yeah, it does go right behind our school. I don’t know what the odds are. I know environmentally, should it happen, it would be a catastrophe for our small location."

Ford-Johnston says that because Westport is a small Adirondack community, the town doesn’t have the same kind of emergency responders available in bigger cities. But she says it is a good idea to do more planning in case of a major derailment.

“I haven’t done a lot of research on it at this point but I do know that it is a concern. I think this is something we will need to take a good close look at and work with our county HAZMAT to work with and find out how best to deal with it. It goes right through our whole community, no question. The Depot Theatre where the train tracks are is across the soccer field from us.”

Claire Barnett with the Healthy Schools Network is a seasonal resident of Westport and spends part of each year in the town. She says seeing the closeness of the local school to the railroad tracks is one of the things that made her think that schools might be at risk.

“You know, the train goes right through there it runs along the Lake Champlain shoreline there and it goes through farmlands, it goes right through the hamlet. If there is a derailment there, it literally would literally wipe out the entire community.”

James Short, superintendent of the Plattsburgh's City School District says their school has* incorporated the nearby railroad into their schools' emergency plan. He says their plans were developed long before fears were raised about oil tanker trains.


“We’re quite aware of the rail line and the close proximity not just necessarily to school buildings but, you know, it cuts right through our community. Kids could be walking to school, parents transporting, we’re widely exposed that way.”

But Short says heightened concern about oil trains has the school district continuously reviewing the safety plans now in place.

“What it has us doing is internally, we talk to more people about 'let's not forget what are safety plans are, let's not forget that we have a very good county emergency management system.' Being a small community helps because we have familiarity with the folks that will be calling us to tell us and give us help with what to do.”


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@PAUSEnergy tweeted this page. 2014-08-13 23:32:55 -0400
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.