Pressure is growing for a thorough review of crude oil transportation through NY

The Legislative Gazette | April 21, 2014 | Kelly Fay

As the state considers two projects that would expand the presence of crude oil, lawmakers and environmental groups are demanding a comprehensive study and public review be conducted to determine the safety and health impact of increased oil transportation in New York. Eleven state and national groups sent a letter to the governor last week, requesting the state require the industry to conduct a full environmental impact review.

	 Emergency workers at the site of the derailment of a train carrying crude oil in Quebec, Canada last year which left 47 dead. Two projects have been proposed for New York that would expand the presence of crude oil including one in the Port of Albany. Environmental groups are demanding the industry conduct a thorough review of the potential health and environmental risks and they are calling on the governor to prevent the further development of an industry they call dangerous and environmentally irresponsible. Photo by AP.

Global Partners LP — a Fortune 500-ranked company specializing in the transportation of crude oil — has proposed expanding operations at a facility in the Port of Albany to heat crude oil and redeveloping an old industrial shipyard in New Windsor into a rail station. The plan would allow the import and heating of Canadian tar sands oil in the state — the oil is exceptionally thick, requiring it be heated before use — which would then be shipped on the Hudson River.

"This is Gov. [Andrew] Cuomo's Keystone moment," Executive Director of Environmental Advocates of New York Peter Iwanowicz said, referring to a pending decision from President Barack Obama on whether to permit a tar sands oil pipeline from Canada into the country. "For two years under the Department of Environmental Conservation's watch, the oil industry has laid the groundwork to turn New York into a primary route to market for some of the dirtiest and most dangerous oil on earth … nationwide, eyes are watching the governor because of the destruction tar sands would have on our environment."

Bakkan oil, which is more flammable than traditional oil, has grown increasingly popular in the industry over the past few years. Advocates of clean energy have criticized the increased role of New York as a transportation hub for the crude oil from North Dakota, Montana and Canada, saying there has not been proper oversight and the state should invest in renewable resources instead. 

In late January of this year, Cuomo issued an Executive Order requesting a thorough review by five state agencies of the state's spill prevention, response rules, and programs regulating the transportation of crude oil and petroleum products. At least four derailments of trains carrying crude oil have occurred in New York over the last year and several more throughout the U.S. and Canada, including one in Quebec which killed 47 people.

Lawmakers and environmental advocates are particularly concerned with the DOT 111 rail cars used for crude oil transportation — the National Transportation Safety Board has noted a number of structural flaws and inadequacies with the cars, which according to a 2012 study from the department account for nearly 70 percent of tank cars transporting petroleum products throughout the country.Cuomo noted the federal Department of Transportation is updating safety procedures and regulations for the transportation of flammable liquids, but said New York should take immediate action to develop their own approach.

U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joe Martens have requested the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency review response plans and guidelines for the transportation of hazardous materials — because the cars run interstate, they are under the jurisdiction of the federal government.

Sen. Tony Avella, co-chair of the Environmental Conservation Committee, sent a letter to Martens last week requesting a full Environmental Impact Study be conducted before a decision on the projects proposed by Global. Avella, D-Queens, will introduce legislation that would require an EIS before a determination is made.

"The fact that this highly combustible material is that close to downtown Albany and residential homes should warrant everyone's concern," Avella said of the project proposal for the capital city. The senator also criticized the Bakkan industry's current presence in New York without a comprehensive study being conducted beforehand.

"Why should we even go there? Why are we allowing this in the first place knowing full well accidents have happened with these rail cars across the country with devastating effects?" Avella asked.

Inspections of 102 rail cars by state Department of Transportation at a train yard adjacent to the Port of Albany called Kenwood Rail Yard found one defective brake shoe and 15 wheels with "shell type" wheel defects, meaning the wheel had been worn down and lost hardened steel surface. According to the Governor's Office, the defect is not known to cause derailments but the cars have been taken out of service.

At a rail station in Buffalo known as the Frontier Rail Yard, an inspection of 102 DOT 111s reported seven defects including a break shoe that was worn down to metal on a car presented as ready for departure. The Federal Railroad Administration also issued a violation to the yard for partial failure to conduct a 1000-mile brake test. Inspections will continue to be conducted throughout the state.

Sandy Stuebing of People of Albany United for Safe Energy — a group educating residents and lobbying against the proposed expansion by Global — called the vessels "the Ford Pinto of rail cars."

"These fragile DOT 111 rail cars were originally designed for corn syrup and molasses," Steubing said. "Given the law of averages we can expect more derailments, more spills, more explosions and much more waste of taxpayer money. There will also be a huge increase in green house gases contributing to climate change."

Sen. Neil Breslin, who represents the city of Albany, said the tracks carrying crude oil are in very direct and close proximity to residential neighborhoods, and he doesn't believe there is enough evidence to show the rail cars used are safe.

"What I've seen [so far in terms of preparation] is how everyone would address an emergency if it happened," said Breslin, D-Delmar. "I would be much more interested in making sure an emergency doesn't happen."

Assemblywoman Pat Fahy, who also represents Albany, said another important precaution is ensuring Global Partners LP at the Port of Albany has sufficient insurance in the case of an accident. Fahy notes that, following the deadly explosion in Canada last year, the company responsible filed bankruptcy and victims were left without financial assistance.

Breslin and Fahy said their constituents have voiced great concern over the increased presence of crude oil in the city. Albany County has issued a moratorium on the heating and expansion of crude oil until a review is conducted by the county Department of Health and Sheriff's office.

"People want to make sure all the protections are there before we talk expansion," Fahy said. If a number of concerns can't be met, then expansion may not be an option."

The governor has extended the public comment period for the projects through June 2, and a report from five state agencies — the Department of Environmental Conservation; Department of Transportation; Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services; Department of Health; and Energy Research and Development Authority — is due April 30.

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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.