Trailer with firefighting foam proposed in Washington County

Post-Star | April 2, 2014 | Column by Jamie Munks

FORT EDWARD -- With oil-by-rail transportation on the rise, Washington County officials are looking at emergency preparedness that would better equip responders in the event of a disaster involving volatile substances.

As the safety of oil-by-rail operations comes under increased scrutiny nationwide following several deadly derailments, county officials are considering a proposal for a firefighting foam trailer as crude oil and fuel-grade ethanol are shipped by rail through the county on the way to Albany distribution centers.

Several high-profile accidents have raised alarm, but “Washington County has had exposure for years,” said Daniel Baker, fire protection specialist for the state Office of Fire Prevention and Control Hazardous Materials Bureau.

Baker gave a presentation about such accident preparedness to the Washington County Board of Supervisors Public Safety Committee on Tuesday, as county Public Safety Director Bill Cook proposed the county purchase a foam-dispensing trailer using grant funds.

Bakken crude oil is making its way from North Dakota, through Canada, to Albany distribution centers, traveling through Washington County via Canadian Pacific rail lines.

Firefighting foam is designed to coat fuel such as crude oil, gasoline or biodiesel in a spill, reducing the likelihood of combustion. When mixed with water, the substance expands significantly.

A freight train carrying Bakken formation crude oil derailed last year in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, resulting in a rail car fire and explosion, killing 47 people and wreaking havoc in the town. That and other high-profile accidents have prompted lawmakers, including Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., to call for change.

“Washington County has been ill-equipped for flammable and combustible liquid emergencies long before crude oil,” Baker said Tuesday, noting that Warren and Saratoga counties have the foam apparatus.

Most Washington County fire departments have the firefighting foam, but in smaller quantities than what Cook is proposing for the county, Board of Supervisors Chairman Jim Lindsay said.

The foam trailer could also be used for other non-rail-related incidents in the county.

Cook estimated the trailer would cost in the range of $65,000 to $75,000, and said the Department of Homeland Security has approved the project, which Cook is seeking a grant to fund. The Public Safety Committee on Tuesday consented to moving forward with the project.

Although costly, in the event of a disaster, the state Department of Environmental Conservation would likely assist county officials in trying to recoup money from the entity that created the spill, Baker said.

“It’s not like you’re going to spend this money, then something happens and you use it all up and you have to spend it again,” Baker said.

Supervisors questioned how much shared responsibility there is with the rail operator, in this case Canadian Pacific.

Hartford Supervisor Dana Haff wondered if there’s ever been a suggestion of requiring a “foam car” on these trains, and other officials suggested Canadian Pacific could provide the county with storage facilities for the foam.

“Talking to CP Rail is something this body may want to do,” Baker said. “They’re under a lot of pressure politically not just from the state, but from the feds.”

Some of the rail safety issues that have been raised in the state and national political arenas lately, such as phasing out outdated tank cars and rail speed limits, came up at Tuesday’s meeting.

Baker estimated that trains passing through Washington County are traveling 40 mph on average.

“From Fort Edward up, and maybe even Saratoga up, there’s an awful lot of unguarded crossings,” Argyle Supervisor Bob Henke said.

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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.