New Jersey regulators bypassed public in permitting oil trains

Repost from NorthJersey.com

In the dark

Editorial, The Record, November 26, 2014
An air permit issued on Nov. 6 by the state Department of Environmental Protection allows Buckeye Partners to accept large amounts of Canadian tar sands oil at its newly renovated oil terminal in Perth Amboy.
An air permit issued on Nov. 6 by the state Department of Environmental Protection allows Buckeye Partners to accept large amounts of Canadian tar sands oil at its newly renovated oil terminal in Perth Amboy. | DON SMITH/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

SHARPLY INCREASING the amount of oil transported by rail through New Jersey is not a “minor modification” and should not have been approved by the state without public notice.

The result is that the public continues to remain largely in the dark about trains carrying crude oil through the area.

The lack of disclosure started with officials saying they feared that providing specifics about the trains and their contents could make them a target. What is known is that trains pass through 11 Bergen County towns on the way to a refinery in Philadelphia.

Without a public hearing, the state Department of Environmental Protection issued a permit on Nov. 6 to let Buckeye Partners accept large amounts of Canadian tar sands oil at its Perth Amboy terminal and also granted its request to increase the amount of oil it can transfer there annually to almost 1.8 billion gallons.

This means that an additional 330 oil trains could travel New Jersey’s freight lines each year, while as much as 5 billion gallons of crude oil from the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota already pass through. The extra trains would add on average a little less than one train a day, which does not seem like much. But the lack of communication is disturbing.

Local emergency personnel and environmentalists fear the disaster they would face if a train derails. The tar sands oil can sink in water and is difficult to remove if spilled. Crude from the Bakken region is highly flammable. Having these materials hurtle through local neighborhoods — going by schools, hospitals and homes — brings major risks.

We know this isn’t an easy problem to solve. Oil has to be transported, and everyone enjoys cheaper prices at the gas pumps. However, DEP officials were wrong to say the 603-page permit was a “minor modification” that required no public participation.

New York officials faced a similar application from another company. That prompted a public hearing and a review of whether to allow the transport of large amounts of heavy crude because of these risks. New Jersey should at least have given this the same thorough — and public — review.

DEP officials say they can only regulate what happens on Buckeye’s property.

“We regulate emissions and have requirements for how materials are handled, stored or discharged, but we cannot limit how much is processed or how much is transported,” said Larry Hajna, a DEP spokesman.

While the federal government regulates the cargo carried on railroads, the DEP can cap the amount of emissions a facility can put in the air. That, according to environmentalists, could be an indirect way to limit the amount of oil moved through the state.

While rail industry officials say 99 percent of trains reach their destination without incident, it’s the 1 percent that worries us.

If anything, the number of oil trains barreling through New Jersey looks to be on the rise. That’s only more reason for the state to stop its silence on the issue.

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