Plattsburgh protesters oppose oil trains

Press-Republican | July 6, 2014 | Column by Chris Fasolino

 — PLATTSBURGH — Rallying at the mouth of the Saranac River, near railroad tracks that often carry oil trains, North Country residents Saturday expressed their opposition to increased crude-oil transport and commemorated the one-year anniversary of a catastrophic derailment in Quebec.

Mollie Matteson, a senior scientist from the Center for Biological Diversity, addresses the crowd at Saturday's rally. Many attendees brought signs and banners related to issues ranging from energy policy to environmental concerns to the Lac-Megantic railway accident. (Ben Rowe/P-R Photo)

On July 6, 2013, in the town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, a freight train carrying oil derailed and exploded. At least 42 people died. Five more are missing and presumed dead. About 30 buildings were destroyed.

The event in Plattsburgh was organized by Mollie Matteson, a senior scientist from the Center for Biological Diversity, and drew about 60 people.

Orange Ribbons

Protesters marched across the pedestrian bridge over the Saranac River, many of them carrying orange ribbons intended to represent the danger of fire and explosion from oil trains.

Matteson said that, in addition to the concerns for public safety, oil would threaten the Saranac River, Lake Champlain and the area’s wildlife. “They’re still cleaning up at Lac-Megantic,” she said. “With oil spills, typically only 5 to 25 percent of the oil is cleaned up; the rest just stays there. It has long-term effects for fish and all the way up the food chain.”

In addition to her work with the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental organization, Matteson cited her personal connection to the area. “I live in Burlington, and I come over to the Adirondacks a lot. This is one of my favorite places to be.” She is eager to see the region protected.

In her speech to the crowd, Matteson called Lac-Megantic: “A town not so different from communities here, where oil trains also run.” Matteson said that more crude oil was spilled from trains in the past year than in the previous 40 years combined.

She concluded: “Oil trains pose an unacceptable risk.”

River, Lake

Councilor Mike Kelly of Plattsburgh’s Ward 2 led the crowd in a chant of “Power to the People,” and then spoke about the Saranac River.

“The river just to our right is a thread that runs through my entire ward,” Kelly said. “It’s almost become a spiritual thing for me to walk along the river and reflect and think about how beautiful it is.”

Speaking of previous environmental progress in Plattsburgh, he said, “A lot of work went into restoring that river we love, and we don’t want it destroyed again.”

Mary-Alice Shemo, of the Plattsburgh-based group People for Positive Action, spoke of her concerns about the lack of corporate responsibility. “When I was raising my daughter,” Shemo said, “we had a simple rule in our house, and it saved a lot of hassle: Whoever spills it, cleans it up.”

Shemo said that, during the last 40 years, “the maximization of profits” has become “the world’s guiding principle.”

“It wasn’t always like that,” she said.


Plattsburgh resident Bill Cowan, who lives at Lake Forest Senior Living Community, spoke of his concerns about living near the railroad tracks. 

“I’m within 150 feet of the rail line, and I can see an average of two to three trains, each with 80-120 tank cars, per day,” Cowan said.

Although first responders may plan for what would happen after a derailment, preparations would not help to prevent a disaster from occurring in the first place, he said. “If there was a derailment near the lake, it would pollute the lake for decades,” he said.

Andy Buchanan of Whallonsburg, who attended the rally, said that he also lives near the railroad tracks and is “very aware of the huge increase in oil trains. It’s really been noticeable in the past year.”

“What concerns people is that the tracks are very old, and not in particularly good shape; and they’re running trains that are longer and heavier, with small crew sizes,” he said.

The safety of the railroad crews is another aspect of the issue, he said, citing their need for “a safe working environment.”

Buchanan was born in London, England, but said that he “wanted to live in the Adirondacks.”

Now, he wants to protest “the running of oil trains through the North Country.”

Fossil fuels

Local environmental activist Tim Palmer expressed broader concerns about the impact of fossil fuels. “If we continue to burn oil and fossil fuels as we are, we are compromising the future of our children and grandchildren,” he said. “The dangers of global warming are real and significant.”

Matteson also cited the issue of climate change, calling it “a global concern.”

One large sign read: “Draw the Line vs. Fossil Fuels—Defend a Livable Future.” 

The rally concluded with protesters gathering on the pedestrian bridge and singing “This Land is Your Land.”

Kevin Cross of Richmond, Vt., who had brought his canoe to the rally, joined in from the waters below.

Cross said that he had brought the canoe because “we want to have a presence on the water to show people use this resource.

“This is the Saranac River — a beautiful river that people paddle on.” He noted that the river meets the lake in a place near the railroad tracks, where “there could be a derailment.”

“That’s a tragic thought to me.”

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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.