The rolling bombs go on

Times Union | May 3, 2015 | Editorial

Our opinion: The delay in oil train safety measures, inadequate ones at that, means years of living with potential disaster.

Imagine that day after day, a line of vehicles passes within feet of your home, each car carrying 1,000 tons of TNT, barrelling along at 50 miles an hour – more than half a million tons of TNT a week.

That’s what people dwelling near freight tracks in parts of the Capital Region live with. And they will be living with this reality for years to come if the federal government doesn’t rethink rules that seem designed more to please rail and oil executives than protect vulnerable citizens.

The U.S. Department of Transportation took steps last week to make crude oil transport somewhat safer. But it still gave an extraordinarily rich industry up to a decade to retrofit its fleet. Even the flimsiest rail cars – DOT-111s – can remain in service, and they’ll have two to three years before a retrofit is required.

What’s more, new 40 mph speed limits that will be in force in 46 “high-hazard” urban areas won’t apply anywhere in the Capital Region, not even in Albany. Under the federal regulations, there aren’t quite enough people in the state’s capital city to merit the extra protection – about 1,500 too few. In all of New York, for that matter, the 40 mph speed limit will apply only in Buffalo and New York City.

That’s absurd. As Albany County Executive Dan McCoy has noted, Albany is the nation’s third-biggest crude oil hub. Reducing speed from 50 mph to 40 mph might not end derailments – trains can and do go off the rails at lower speeds – but it could certainly lower the potential for accidents and devastating explosions.

When so much oil is moving through a city so close to people’s homes, as trains do particularly in Albany’s South End, it only makes sense to take extra precautions. Federal regulations that set the threshold for “high-threat urban areas” at 100,000 people need to be changed. Sensible safety measures that could reduce the very real potential for an urban disaster should not be held captive to some bureaucratic desire for a nice round number.

But speed limits are just one piece of it. Leaving the DOT-111s, and the only somewhat better CPC-1232s, in service in the near term is its own risky calculation. Accidents don’t go on hiatus because of federal deadlines. And what’s to say an industry with a track record of missing safety deadlines will meet another one that’s years away?

Nor do these latest rules deal with the huge increase in oil shipments by barge down the Hudson River out of Albany – activity taking place under expired regulations that Congress 10 years ago said should be updated. Only now has the U.S. Coast Guard drafted new regulations; they have yet to be made public but are already being resisted by that industry.

To be sure, there have been steps to make rail shipments safer, beyond the U.S. DOT rules. Global Partners, one of firms involved in crude oil shipments through the Port of Albany, has said it won’t use the most fragile rail cars. But voluntary gestures can’t replace clear, consistent regulation. Nor can measures that will put off safety improvements for years do anything about the clear and present danger of bomb-laden trains rumbling past homes, day after day.

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PAUSE, People of Albany United for Safe Energy posted about The rolling bombs go on on PAUSE, People of Albany United for Safe Energy's Facebook page 2015-05-04 22:48:04 -0400
The rolling bombs go on
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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.