State relies on oil train operators to self-report

Capital New York | August 8, 2014 | Column by Scott Waldman

ALBANY—The state does not independently monitor how much crude oil train operators transport through New York each day, instead allowing them to self-report the total, officials at three state agencies said.

Oil trains in Albany. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

CSX and Canadian Pacific transport the crude through western New York and down from the North Country on a daily basis.

Though it does not monitor how much is transported, the state does inspect the trains and crude offloading facilities at the Port of Albany, the state officials said.

"We have to rely on the railroad—we have to hope they're telling us the truth," state Homeland Security commissioner Jerome Hauer said.

Hauer said he does not know of any state that counts the amount of oil coming in to its borders. He said the state has video cameras monitoring the trains, but they are not constantly monitoring and operate more like security cameras that can be reviewed after an incident occurs. New York can also now track train locations, he said. 

But monitoring the flow of oil into the state will take an order from Washington, Hauer said. Rail operators, he said, should share greater access to their computers, including the systems that track trains. However, Hauer said, state governments can't force them to share that information and railroads and crude offloading facilities are often resistant to increased oversight.

Two operators at the Port of Albany, Global Partners and Buckeye Partners, have state permission to bring in up to 2.8 billion gallons of crude oil every year. There is no mechanism to independently verify that they are bringing in that amount, according to three state agencies. CSX and Canadian Pacific transport the oil for Global Partners and Buckeye Partners.

Hauer said rail companies could establish a sort of bar code system on train cars that allow them to be tracked more easily.

The companies involved did not immediately return calls for comment on Thursday.

Neither the state Department of Environmental Conservation, the state Department of Transportation nor Hauer's Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services tracks the trains, spokespeople with those agencies acknowledged.

The company that brings in most of the crude through New York—Global Partners of Waltham, Massachusetts—has been fined elsewhere for misrepresenting the amount of oil it transports. Earlier this year, Global was cited by Oregon regulators for moving 297 million gallons of oil between December 2012 and November 2013 even though its permit allowed it to move just 50 million gallons.

Federal and state agencies have struggled to keep up with the tremendous growth of transporting oil by rail. In 2008, there were fewer than 10,000 carloads of crude moved on the nation's rail system, but that jumped to almost 450,000 last year, according to the Association of American Railroads.

“We just have to realize we're trying to live without a government here,” said Fred Millar, an independent rail consultant. “Our government is so badly under-resourced.”

Global has been investing in infrastructure in the Bakken shale region of North Dakota, which will allow it to load crude oil more quickly. The amount of money Global and Buckeye pay into New York's oil spill fund is also based on the amount they report bringing in. State officials do not independently verify those amounts.

After tougher federal laws were enacted to require rail companies to report the routes they were using to transport the oil, CSX recently reported it was moving up to 35 trains of crude a week, most carrying more than 100 cars. Canadian Pacific reported it was moving up to nine trains, state records show.

Anti-oil train activists in some communities, including Albany, have set up cameras to count trains to begin monitoring whether rail operators are reporting their numbers accurately. Oil tanker cars are sometimes included onto freight trains carrying other goods, and those have been much harder to track.

Millar, who consults with local companies around the country, said states don't have resources to monitor all of the trains. But he said rail operators have that information at their fingertips and could easily share it with state officials.

That is unlikely to happen without intervention from Washington.

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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.