Repost from WAMC Northeast Public Radio [Editor: Significant quote: “More than 80 environmental, business, recreational and other organizations along with former members of state agencies, current and former state legislators and both the Plattsburgh and Burlington City Councils have signed a letter to the Vermont and New York Congressional delegation calling for a ‘federal legislatively imposed ban on the transport of oil along Lake Champlain and the Hudson River.'” – RS]
Advocates Call On Federal Officials To Ban Rail Transport Of Bakken Oil
By Pat Bradley, Apr 14, 2016
A coalition of environmental and municipal officials stood in a park overlooking the Saranac River and a rail trestle this morning. They announced a new effort to convince federal representatives from New York and Vermont to ban crude oil transport in order to protect Lake Champlain and the Hudson River.
The group met at MacDonough Park across from City Hall. The park is only a few hundred yards from a rail trestle that daily sees trains carrying crude oil cross over the Saranac River as it empties into Lake Champlain. The advocates say transporting Bakken oil by rail remains an unacceptable risk to Vermont and New York, and is especially hazardous to the sensitive ecosystems of Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks.
More than 80 environmental, business, recreational and other organizations along with former members of state agencies, current and former state legislators and both the Plattsburgh and Burlington City Councils have signed a letter to the Vermont and New York Congressional delegation calling for a “federal legislatively imposed ban on the transport of oil along Lake Champlain and the Hudson River.”
National Wildlife Federation Senior Counsel Jim Murphy outlined a precipitous increase in rail accidents nationally over the past three years and says the oil trains that travel along Lake Champlain are too dangerous. “We have concluded that there is no safe way to transport this oil at this time. The trains that roll along this lake are sometimes twice the length of the train that destroyed Lac Megantic. The danger is just simply too high.”
Plattsburgh Ward One City Councilor Rachelle Armstrong called the oil trains travelling through the city an ominous problem. “Our municipalities need to stand up and become the advocates in a bold and aggressive way so that we bring the attention to bear on this issue that our leaders at the federal level need to recognize.”
The rail corridor along Lake Champlain also passes through the Adirondack Park. Adirondack Council spokesman John Sheehan says the trains pose a significant risk to the largest park in the contiguous United States. “This is also considered to be a biosphere reserve by the United Nations. The danger here is also to a drinking water supply for one hundred eighty thousand people. Lake Champlain serves as water for people from Vermont, New York and Quebec. So we have grave concerns about the environment, about communities and about wild lands here and we’re hoping that the federal government takes them seriously.”
The trains carrying Bakken crude travel 100 miles along Lake Champlain and through the Adirondacks to the Port of Albany. Lake Champlain Committee Executive Director Lori Fisher believes a catastrophic accident is not a matter of if, but when. “In the past we have pushed for a ban on the DOT-111’s. That hasn’t happened. There’s been some movement to upgrade trains to the twelve thirty two’s. They don’t represent a greater safety for our communities. That’s why we see the need to push for a ban on oil transport until it can be safe. We know it’s not safe now and it’s a ticking time bomb and we need to act now.”
The advocates noted that the evacuation zone from an oil train derailment in Plattsburgh includes City Hall, the downtown business area, the Country Government Center and numerous schools.
Repost from ArtVoice, Buffalo, NY [Editor: Professor Niman has written a thorough examination of crude-by-rail issues. The local (Buffalo NY) perspective is no drawback. This is an excellent reference article no matter where you are. For example, if/when Benicia approves a permit for Valero’s proposed Crude By Rail project, everyone uprail from here can expect to be the new Buffalo. – RS]
Buffalo’s Bomb Trains
By Michael I. Niman, February 26, 2015
They span over a mile long containing up to 140 tank cars and as much as 4.5 million gallons of some of the nastiest forms of crude oil on earth, pumped from “extreme” extraction operations in North America’s new oil boomtowns. They cross rivers and transverse open plains, wilderness forest and some of the most densely populated urban areas in the country. Occasionally, with alarmingly increasing frequency, they careen off into rivers, catch fire and explode, or both. When spilled in water, their heavy oil exterminates river ecosystems. When they blow up, they release the fires of hell, with one oil train accident in 2013 wiping out most of the town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killing 47 people and gutting its downtown. That’s when folks started referring to these explosive steel snakes as “Bomb Trains.”
This is one of the dark sides of North America’s fossil energy boom—the backstory on cheap fuel. The uptick in oil production comes from using extreme means to recklessly drill oil, using carbon-intensive methods like fracking to extract environmentally dangerous low grade oils such as Bakken crude from Montana and North Dakota. This oil, pumped from the dolomite layer of the Bakken geological formation, which also underlies portions of the Canadian provinces of Saskatchewan and Manitoba, is more volatile than conventional oils, with a lower flashpoint for explosion. When rail cars started to blow in Lac-Mégantic, The National Post reported a blast radius of over one half mile.
The United States National Transportation Safety Board estimates that about 400,000 barrels a day of this oil make the trip to Atlantic Coast refineries, with 20 to 25 percent moving through the port of Albany. Much of this Albany-bound oil moves across New York utilizing rail lines passing though the hearts of Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Utica. Oil from Canada crosses the Niagara river, entering the US both in Niagara Falls, and via Buffalo’s 142 year old International Railroad Bridge, as well as taking a northern route, dropping down from Quebec on tracks passing through the Adirondack Park, including about 100 miles of Lake Champlain watershed shoreline. Non Albany-bound oil, such as some shipments from Buford, North Dakota to Houston, Texas, also take an unlikely route through Buffalo.
Though much of this oil winds up moving through New York State, federal law limits the state’s authority to regulate it. While crude oil can be stabilized to make it less volatile in transit, whether or not it receives such treatment is up to the discretion of regulators in the state that produces it—not necessarily the states through whose cities it will roll. Most of the explosive Bakken crude coming our way originates in North Dakota, where the energy industry all but owns the legislature, fertilizing the state’s anti-regulatory zeitgeist with a healthy dose of cash. The end result is, whatever passes for a state government in North Dakota fails to meet even Texas’s modest safety standards for anti-explosive fuel stabilization.
The Association of American Railroads reports that, thanks to the Bakken and Tar Sands oil booms, the amount of oil moving across the country by train has increased 45 fold (4,500 percent) from 2008 through 2013, with the volume continuing to increase through 2014 and 2015. As a result, more oil spilled from oil trains in the U.S. in 2013 than in the preceding 37 years. The number of accidents increased in 2014, and seems to be steadily increasing this year, with oil trains derailing and blowing up last week in West Virginia and northern Ontario. The Associated Press reports that the U.S. Department of Transportation now predicts an average of ten derailment accidents a year involving crude oil or ethanol tank cars over the next twenty years, “causing more than $4 billion in damage and possibly killing hundreds of people if an accident happens in a densely populated part of the U.S.” It’s no longer a matter of “if” there will a catastrophic oil train derailment.
Both the New York State Office of Fire Prevention and Control, and the United States Department of Transportation recommend evacuating a one half mile perimeter around accidents involving railroad tanker cars carrying flammable liquids. Karen Edelstein, a researcher and the New York Program Director for the FracTracker Alliance, mapped oil train routes across the state, adding overlays for this evacuation zone, and for schools and hospitals. Her data shows that statewide, there are 502 public schools situated within potential evacuation zones. In Buffalo, about one third of the population live within one half mile of these bomb train routes, and 27 public schools and eight private schools lie within potential evacuation perimeters as well. This includes PS 42, which serves students with disabilities, and is located adjacent to the track. Sister’s Hospital and the Buffalo Zoo are well within this perimeter, which skirts the Buffalo State and Erie County Medical Center campuses. If we freak out when it snows, how well are we going to handle what appear to be atomic fireballs, should one of these trains blow up?
While the profits from this oil boom have been privatized, much of the cost associated with reckless extraction have been externalized, meaning dumped on the public. Aside from the obvious environmental costs that we and future generation will have to bear, are the less visible emergency preparation costs that every school, hospital and municipality within a half mile of bomb train routes must now cover. In Buffalo, this means 35 schools need to work with local emergency services providers to develop plans to quickly evacuate students not just from buildings, but from neighborhoods, all with a possible backdrop of explosions, sirens and billowing smoke.
While it’s not statistically likely that a train will explode in Buffalo or any other specific place, it is a certainty that trains will keep exploding with increasing frequency across the U.S. and Canada. This means that cash strapped municipalities across the continent will have to develop plans to address a catastrophe we know for certain will befall some of our communities.
Addressing this risk involves not just planning to respond to it, and maintaining an emergency response network capable of responding, but also working to prevent such a catastrophe. A report from the Cornell University Community and Regional Development Institute points out that this involves a multitude of responsibilities, such as monitoring surface rail crossings to prevent vehicle train collisions that can lead to a derailment. Such responsibility, the report notes, usually falls to local police forces that often lack the personnel to do this. Likewise, federal regulators lack the personnel to inspect the nation’s rail infrastructure, and state Departments of Transportation lack the resources to adequately inspect bridges crossing railroad tracks. All of these costs fall not on the oil or railroad industries, but on government agencies, with much of this work not being done due to budget constraints.
What little planning there is to deal with an oil train explosion is alarming to read. A three car fire requires, according to the New York State Office of Fire Prevention and Control , 80,000 gallons of water for laying down a fire retardant foam blanket and cooling adjacent rail cars. Hence, the state recommends, if there is “NO life hazard and more than 3 tank cars are involved in fire OFPC recommends LETTING THE FIRE BURN unless the foam and water supply required to control is available” [sic.]. The wording here is ominous, with the availability of the required foam and water not being the default expectation, but instead, simply a possibility. This language is there for a reason, however. The Auburn Citizen, in central New York, quotes Cayuga County Emergency Management Office Director Brian Dahl, who, in response to a question about his county’s ability to respond to an oil train fire, unequivocally states, “The amount of foam and water you would need, there’s just not enough in central New York.”
While oddly inferring that maybe you should put the fire out if you have adequate foam and water, even if there is no “life hazard,” the state’s instructions don’t mention what to do if there is a life hazard, but no foam or water. Also troubling is their inference that if more than three cars are on fire you should just give up. Last week’s fires in Ontario and West Virginia saw seven and fourteen cars ablaze respectively, with each fire burning for over 24 hours. In all caps, the state’s instructions warn responders,
“All resources must be available prior to beginning suppression.”
It doesn’t give any suggestions as to what to do if you can’t move the water to the fire, or have the foam necessary to smother a dragon. None of the suggested responses are tolerable should an oil train explode in an urban environment.
Dr. Michael I. Niman is a professor of journalism and media studies at SUNY Buffalo State. His previous columns are at artvoice.com, archived at www.mediastudy.com, and available globally through syndication.
Oil train forum attendees want state, federal regulators to ban leaky tankers and assess new risks
News Release — Lake Champlain Committee, Sep. 2, 2014
PLATTSBURGH, N.Y. – More than 120 concerned residents attended a public forum to discuss the risks of crude oil train traffic through the Adirondack Park and Champlain Valley here Thursday night, with many saying they would urge state officials to fully assess the risks to communities and the environment, and urge federal regulators to ban the older, leak-prone rail tanker cars involved in recent spills, fires and explosions.
Currently, more than three million gallons per day of Bakken crude oil is transported through the region on rail lines that had rarely carried crude oil or hazardous materials before.
“We were very pleased with the number of people who came out to discuss the risks of oil train traffic through the Adirondack Park and Champlain Valley,” said Diane Fish, Deputy Director of the Adirondack Council. “But even if you couldn’t attend, we urge anyone who is concerned about oil train traffic to contact state and federal officials and let them know. If you aren’t sure how to do that, contact one of the sponsor organizations and we will help you.”
The NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (NYS DEC) will be accepting comments through September 30 on its environmental assessment of the plan by Global Partners to expand its oil-transfer facilities at the Port of Albany. Federal officials are currently updating their risk assessments for the rail tanker car traffic.
“If the Global Partners’ expansion is approved, it could lead to a major increase in oil train traffic through the Champlain Valley,” said Lori Fisher, Executive Director of the Lake Champlain Committee. “The new traffic would be carrying tar sands oil from Canada, in addition to the Bakken crude oil already coming from North Dakota, and put our communities and waterways at even greater risk.”
“Tar sands oil is not as explosive as Bakken crude, but it is very heavy and sinks in water so it is very difficult to clean up once it is spilled,” said Adirondack Mountain Club Executive Director Neil Woodworth. “If it gets into Lake Champlain, it is likely we will never get it out again.”
“We know the Adirondack Park is home to some of New York’s rarest and most sensitive wildlife, fish and plant life; and, we know trains derail,” said Mollie Matteson, a biologist at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Immediate action is needed to protect this fragile, irreplaceable environment.”
The organizations said NYS DEC should take into consideration potential for damage to Lake Champlain, the Adirondack Park, the communities through which the tracks pass and local farms when assessing the environmental risks of expanded oil traffic.
The groups also urged those who care about the Adirondack Park and Lake Champlain to tell their Congressional representatives to seek a ban on the model DOT-111 rail cars that have been blamed for most of the recent spills and fires.
The risks of Bakken crude oil rail shipments have been highlighted by a series of recent derailments in the U.S. and Canada resulting in water and soil contamination, deadly explosions and raging fires. A 2013 derailment involving nearly 80 tankers in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killed 47 people and devastated the town. A derailment in May in Lynchburg, Va., set the James River on fire.
Federal officials have said they would require the replacement of the leak-prone rail tanker cars (model DOT-111) involved in recent spills, fires and explosions. However, it will take years to carry out the current plan.
Appearing at the event were U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Emergency & Remedial Response division representatives Carl Pellegrino and Doug Kodama; Essex County Emergency Management Director Don Jaquish; Clinton County Emergency Management Director Eric Day; Claire Barnett of the Healthy Schools Network; and, Mark Malchoff of Lake Champlain Sea Grant.
The event was hosted by the Lake Champlain Committee, Adirondack Council, Adirondack Mountain Club, and the Center for Biological Diversity.
On average, 3.4 million gallons of explosive crude oil per day are shipped through the Champlain Valley on trains coming from the oil fields of North Dakota, through Canada, to Albany. Between five and nine trains per week use the Canadian Pacific Railroad line between Montreal and the Port of Albany on the Hudson River. Each train can haul up to 100 oil tankers. Each tank car carries about 34,000 gallons of oil.
Bakken crude is light and contains large amounts of volatile chemicals, making it highly flammable. Tar sands oil is less explosive, but much heavier. It sinks rather than floating on water, making it impossible to remove via conventional boom-and-suction methods.
Every crude oil spill causes lasting environmental damage, the organizations noted, pointing to continuing problems in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico from the Exxon Valdez and British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon disasters. Closer to home, attempts to clean up oil spills on the St. Lawrence River (1976) and at a long-closed steel mill in southern St. Lawrence County continue to cost taxpayers millions of dollars, decades after they occurred.
The Canadian Pacific Railroad tracks run alongside Lake Champlain for more than 130 miles, including 100 miles inside the Adirondack Park. The tracks also cross the Saranac, Ausable and Bouquet rivers. For many miles, the tracks are just a few feet from the water’s edge.
Lake Champlain is ecologically rich, the drinking water source for nearly 200,000 Champlain Valley residents, and a key driver for the regional economy. The tracks also run through the center of more than a dozen small communities and the City of Plattsburgh, within a short distance of schools, homes, businesses, farmlands, tourist accommodations, campgrounds, beaches and municipal offices.
For more information:
Lori Fisher, Lake Champlain Committee, 802-658-1421
John Sheehan, Adirondack Council, 518-441-1340