State officials want oil shippers to reveal response plans

Capital Pro  |  September 30, 2014  |  By Scott Waldman

ALBANY--New York's first responders don't know how prepared crude oil shippers are to react to potential spills because the industry has not revealed its response plans to the state.

Railroads and shippers should be forced to share those plans with the state even though they are not legally required to do so, according to a letter from Cuomo administration officials to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The letter from state transportation commissioner Joan McDonald, Department of Environmental Conservation commissioner Joe Martens and Jerome Hauer, commissioner of the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services, is part of the state's response to the federal D.O.T.'s proposed rules for transporting hazardous materials.

"Enhancing practices and strengthening regulations to ensure public health and safety and the protection of natural resources are critical," the commissioners wrote. "New York State urges USDOT to expedite the promulgation of these regulations to ensure the safety of those living and working along crude oil transportation corridors."

Cuomo administration officials want the federal D.O.T. to force the oil train industry to replace its most dangerous cars as quickly as possible, remove gas from crude before it is loaded and pay for the cost of emergency response equipment. They also want oil shippers to create a special designation for Bakken crude oil, unless shippers are willing to remove the gas, and minimize its flammable properties, according to the letter.

The letter cites four oil train derailments that have occurred in New York in the last year, none of which caused a significant spill. State officials estimate the cost of firefighting foam for each car would be about $40,000 and request that Washington tax shippers to pay for emergency responders.

"Funding by the railroads, shippers or the federal government should be provided to local agencies along the routes of the crude oil trains so they have the proper training and response posture," they wrote.

New York has become a major hub for crude oil coming from the Bakken shale region of North Dakota and Montana. More than 2 billion gallons of crude are shipped from the Port of Albany annually and more oil travels through the state by rail on its way to other states.

A New Jersey refinery is now bringing in tar sands crude from western Canada by rail, possibly through New York, and then shipping it out to world markets via New York Harbor.

In their letter, the state officials were skeptical of Bakken oil producers' claims that removing gas from crude oil before it is loaded would be too much of an economic burden.

"Given that degasification equipment is standard in other oil production regions, New York State finds it hard to believe that oil producers cannot make the economics work," they wrote.

On Tuesday, Albany County Executive Dan McCoy also submitted comments to the federal D.OT. asking for more stringent oversight of the oil-by-rail industry. He called on transportation secretary Anthony Foxx to use his emergency powers to mandate slower speeds. McCoy, who has proposed bills that would penalize oil train operators who don't properly report spills and who has imposed a moratorium on crude activities at the Port of Albany, requested that Washington mandate stabilization of crude prior to shipping, reduced train speeds, require adequate insurance and adoptation of the most protective tank car standards.

"The monumental increase in crude oil shipping through our community demands a strong response," McCoy said in a statement. "We cannot wait any longer. It is my duty to protect the health and safety of county residents and we need the federal government to strengthen the rules.

The federal crude-by-rail plan is expected to be finalized sometime next year.

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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.