Category Archives: Noise pollution

Joining Trend, NY Suspends Review of Oil Train Terminal Permit

Repost from Inside Climate News

Joining Trend, NY Suspends Review of Oil Train Terminal Permit

Another fight over energy infrastructure ramps up, as state regulators require company to address environmental justice, safety and climate change concerns.
By Zahra Hirji, September 23, 2016
New York regulators have suspended the application of a major oil-by-rail terminal project pending review of potential environmental, health and climate change impacts. Credit: STEEVE DUGUAY/AFP/Getty Images

New York environmental regulators have suspended their review of two proposals to renew and expand operations at a Port of Albany oil terminal until Global Partners LP addresses a laundry list of concerns over environmental, public health, safety and climate change.

Officials at the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) told the company in a letter on Sept. 16 it has three months to provide plans for the following:

  • limiting the oil terminal’s odors and emissions from toxic pollutants, such as benzene
  • addressing high noise levels and safety risks associated with oil trains coming to the facility
  • reducing the terminal’s climate footprint, among other issues.

DEC also informed Global Partners that it is combining the company’s renewal and expansion proposals and treating it like an application for a new project. This dramatic step means even after the company provides the extra information requested by the state, the application will undergo a public comment period and be considered for a comprehensive environmental and climate impact review.

The full review process could take years.

Environmentalists, Albany residents and county officials celebrated the decision, having spent more than two years raising concerns about the oil terminal’s current and proposed operations and fighting it in court.

This case joins a national trend of green and grassroots activism helping to delay and cancel dozens of proposals for new and expanding fossil fuel infrastructure, from oil sands and natural gas pipelines to oil terminals and coal mines. Earlier this month, construction of part of the Dakota Access oil pipeline was halted by the Obama administration in North Dakota, following months of protests led by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe objecting to the project’s potential threat to its drinking water and sacred sites.

“What is so gratifying about the DEC letter is that it requires Global to address every single issue we have raised since 2014,” said Chris Amato, an Earthjustice lawyer who represents the tenants association for Ezra Prentice Homes, a low-income housing development located next to the rail yard associated with the oil terminal. According to Amato, the community “is really, really happy that at long last Global is going to have to…examine the impacts.”

Ezra Prentice Homes is among the communities in the south end of Albany at risk from air pollution and potential train fires. “They are literally at the fence line” of the train tracks, Amato said. “Twenty feet separate the closest homes from oil tankers on the track.”

People in Albany’s South End, which is largely African American, had repeatedly complained to state officials about bad odors wafting from the facilities, among other concerns, since 2012.

“This is a victory for the people of the Ezra Prentice Homes and for the people in the county who live in fear of oil trains every day,” Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy said in a statement.

In response to DEC’s recent letter, Global defended its record. “We disagree with the New York DEC’s decision and believe that we have fully complied with the required permit application process,” said Mark Horan of Rasky Baerlein Strategic Communications, which represents the company. “Global has always been particularly vigilant about the safety of our neighbors wherever we operate and we will continue to work with the Albany community on these issues.”

Global Partners filed a permit request to state officials in 2011 seeking to overhaul its operations to handle more oil. The facility went from handling more than 18 million gallons of oil that year to more than 460 million gallons in 2012, according to the DEC. The facility’s oil capacity peaked in 2014 at more than 1.1 billion gallons of oil, but it has since declined as the oil market has slumped.

The source of the oil and how it traveled to the facility also changed during that time. Initially, the oil coming in was refined; it arrived from barges that came up the Hudson River and was then trucked out regionally. The company began handling unrefined, more volatile (and potentially explosive) crude arriving on trains from North Dakota.

Global sought to expand its operations further in 2013, submitting a permit modification request to add seven boilers to the site. Boilers are critical equipment for handling and storing Canadian tar sands; the thick crude is so viscous it must be heated before it can be transferred from a train car to a storage tank.

The company’s initial expansion plan flew under the radar of Albany residents and the environmental community. Global’s 2013 proposals, however, were loudly protested. And regulators responded by installing a permanent air monitor near the Ezra Prentice community in 2015. According to officials, the air showed elevated levels of benzene. Regulators cited these findings in their recent letter.

“The DEC has monitored higher-than-expected benzene levels in the vicinity of the facility that may be attributable, in part, to the storage and processing of petroleum products at the Global facility,” regulators wrote. “Global must address what measures it intends to take to limit, to the maximum extent practicable, any benzene emissions attributable to the facility.”

DEC has identified Albany’s South End, which includes Ezra Prentice Homes,as an “environmental justice” community associated with Global’s operations. In 2013, the DEC updated its environmental justice policy to include more public participation requirements for projects with potential impacts on such communities. In the recent letter, DEC specifically orders Global to take these steps.

Another task for Global, identified by DEC, is to devise a plan to limit any climate impacts associated with the future handling of oil sands, a crude that generates especially high emissions during extraction and processing.

“New York is the most aggressive state in the nation in pursuing action to ensure the public and the environment are protected from risks associated with the federally regulated transport of crude oil,” DEC spokeswoman Erica Ringewald wrote in an email.

State officials are also conducting a more comprehensive review for the permit renewal application of Buckeye Partners, another energy companywith an Albany rail terminal.

    Davis Enterprise Editorial: Benicia washes its hands of us

    Repost from the Davis Enterprise

    Our view: Benicia washes its hands of us

    By Our View | November 15, 2015

    The issue: Bay Area city can’t see past its own back yard on refinery project

    The city of Benicia — the only entity capable of exerting any control over the crude-oil shipments set to arrive at a planned expansion of a Valero oil terminal — has shown in a draft environmental impact report that any impact the terminal has on communities farther up the train tracks is none of its business.

    THE PROPOSED project would allow Valero to transport crude oil to its Benicia refinery on two 50-car freight trains daily on Union Pacific tracks that come right through Davis, Dixon, Fairfield and Suisun City on their way to Benicia. The rail shipments would replace up to 70,000 barrels per day of crude oil currently transported to the refinery by ship, according to city documents.

    The original draft EIR, released in 2014, didn’t adequately address safety and environmental concerns. Local governments — including the city of Davis, Yolo County and the Sacramento Area Council of Governments — weighed in on the draft, urging Benicia to take a second look.

    Benicia withdrew the draft and went back to work, and the new document acknowledges the risks of pollution, noise and, oh yes, catastrophic explosions from oil trains, the likes of which leveled Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, in 2013.

    Disappointingly, having recognized the issues involved, the report simply says there’s no way to mitigate them and recommends moving ahead. With a bureaucratic shrug of the shoulders, the concerns of communities from Roseville to Suisun City are dismissed.

    NATURALLY, SACOG disagrees, and so do we. While it’s true that there’s not a lot Benicia can do itself to mitigate the impact of its project, it can force Valero to do something about it.

    SACOG urges a raft of measures that are within Valero’s control: advanced notification to local emergency personnel of all shipments, limits on storage of crude-oil tanks in urban areas, funding to train emergency responders, cars with electronically controlled pneumatic brakes, money for rail-safety improvements, implementation of Positive Train Control protocols and, most importantly, a prohibition on shipments of unstabilized crude oil that hasn’t been stripped of the volatile elements that made Lac-Mégantic and other derailments so catastrophic.

    Due to federal laws, cities along the railway lines have no ability to control what goes through. Only Benicia, now, while the project is still on the drawing board, has the authority to set reasonable limits and conditions on a project that puts millions of people along the railroad in harm’s way.

    We urge the Benicia City Council to use its discretionary authority in this matter to protect those of us who have no say in the process.

      Future Blast Zones? How Crude-By-Rail Puts U.S. Communities At Risk

      Repost from teleSUR

      Future Blast Zones? How Crude-By-Rail Puts U.S. Communities At Risk

      By Steve Early, March 23, 2015
      Smoke rises from derailed train cars in western Alabama on Nov. 8, 2013.
      Smoke rises from derailed train cars in western Alabama on Nov. 8, 2013. | Photo: Reuters

      The transport of petroleum via rail is now a well-known and unwelcome sight in many other U.S. communities. Its long distance rail transport has resulted in five major train fires and explosions in the last 16 months alone.

      Richmond, California began life more than a century ago as a sleepy little railroad town. It was the second place on the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay where a transcontinental rail line connected with ferries, to transport freight and passengers to San Francisco. Now a diverse industrial city of 100,000, Richmond is still crisscrossed with tracks, both main lines and shorter ones, serving its deep-water port, huge Chevron oil refinery, and other local businesses.

      Trains just arriving or being readied for their next trip, move in and out of a sprawling Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) rail yard located right next to the oldest part of town. Some train formations are more than 100 cars long. The traffic stalls they create on nearby streets and related use of loud horns, both day and night, have long been a source of neighborhood complaints. Persistent city hall pressure has succeeded in cutting horn blasts by about 1,000 a day, through the creation of several dozen much appreciated “quiet zones.” No other municipality in California has established so many, but only after many years of wrestling with the industry.

      Despite progress on the noise front, many trackside residents continue to experience “quality of life” problems related to the air they breath. Some of their complaints arise from Richmond’s role as a transfer point for coal and petroleum coke (aka “pet coke”) being exported to Asia. As one Richmond official explained at a community meeting in March, these “climate wrecking materials” wend their way through the city in open cars—leaving, in their wake, houses, backyards, and even parked cars covered with a thick film of grimy, coal dust. Coal train fall-out has become so noisome in Richmond that its seven-member city council—now dominated by environmental activists— wants the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) to mandate the use of enclosed cars.

      This would seem to be a no-brainer, public health-wise.  But the track record of this particular governmental agency—in any area related to public health and safety—has not been confidence inspiring lately. The BAAQMD is already complicit with the creation of Richmond’s most troubling new fossil fuel hazard in recent memory. For the last year, that threat has been on display, as far as the eye can see, at BNSF, which is owned by Nebraska billionaire Warren Buffett. Buffett’s rail yard has been filled with hundreds of black, tubular metal tank cars containing a particularly volatile form of crude oil that’s come all the way to Richmond from the new energy boomtowns of North Dakota.

      Buffett’s Bomb Trains

      The arrival of this highly volatile petroleum product is now a well-known and unwelcome sight in many other U.S. communities. Its long distance rail transport has resulted in five major train fires and explosions in the last 16 months alone. In addition to these spectacular non-fatal accidents, mostly occurring in uninhabited areas, North America’s most infamous crude-by-rail disaster took the lives of 47 people in July, 2013. That’s when a runaway train—improperly braked by its single-man crew—barreled into Lac-Megantic, Quebec, leveling all of its downtown.

      Despite this alarming safety record, the BAAQMD has allowed Kinder Morgan, a major energy firm, to store up to 72,000 barrels per day at a Richmond facility leased from the BNSF; from there, it’s loaded tank trucks bound for the Tesoro Golden Eagle Refinery in Martinez, CA., (which has been shutdown recently due to a nationwide strike by the United Steel Workers).  Before issuing the necessary permit for bringing Bakken crude into Richmond, the BAAQMD gave no prior notice, held no public hearings, and conducted no review of any possible environmental or health impacts.

      Aided and abetted by regulatory lapses at multiple levels of government, this stealth approach has served the oil industry well. The precipitous drop in petroleum prices has recently made rail transport of Bakken crude less cost effective (leading to a curtailment of Bay Area shipments). But, prior to that temporary reprieve, the number of rail cars commandeered nationally for this purpose jumped from 9,500 six years ago to 500,000 last year. As labor and environmental critics have pointed out, the Achilles Heel of crude-by-rail everywhere is the aging condition and structural weakness of most tank cars, designed and used, in the past, for hauling less hazardous rail cargo.

      Even newer, supposedly safer tank cars have failed to protect the public from the consequences of oil train collisions, rollovers, tank car ruptures, and spills. The total amount of oil spilled in 2013, due to derailments, was greater in volume than all the spills occurring in the U.S. during the previous forty years. On February 17, a major accident in West Virginia triggered a fire that burned for five days, forced the evacuation of two nearby towns, and seriously threatened local water supplies.

      Trackside communities like Richmond lack sufficient legal tools to avert such disasters in the future, because rail safety enforcement rests with the federal government. Among its other foot-dragging, the U.S. Department of Transportation has failed to mandate tank car modernization and upgrading in timely fashion. As for the BAAQMD, according to Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) organizer Andres Soto, that agency may be “legally responsible for protecting Bay Area air quality but it really just acts as a tool of industry.”

      A Contested Permit

      CBE, the Sierra Club, and Asian Pacific Environmental Network filed suit last year to block Kinder-Morgan’s operation in Richmond. A superior court judge in San Francisco ruled that their challenge to the BAAQMD’s permit-granting authority wasn’t timely, a decision still under appeal. The Richmond City Council supported the permit revocation and urged Congress to halt all Bakken crude transportation by rail until tougher federal safety rules were developed and implemented

      In the meantime, concerned citizens of Contra Costa County began fighting back, first by educating themselves about the dangers of crude by rail and then mobilizing their friends and neighbors to attend informational meetings and protests. Last March, Richmond’s then mayor, Gayle McLaughlin, a California Green, hosted a community forum that featured Marilaine Savard from the Citizens Committee of Lac-Megantic, and Antonia Juhasz, a leading writer and researcher about oil-related hazards. “The oil industry is far too powerful,” Savard told 150 people packed into the storefront headquarters of the Richmond Progressive Alliance. “The first duty of government should be to protect citizens, not shareholders.”

      Since that event, CBE organizer Soto has been on the road, sounding the alarm before audiences throughout the county. In his power-point presentation, he highlights maps illustrating how big the “blast zones” would be in Richmond and other refinery towns if crude-by-rail triggered a fire and explosion on the scale of Lac-Megantic’s.  Last September, direct actionists from the Sunflower Alliance and other groups took the fight directly to Kinder Morgan’s front door. Eight activists locked themselves to a gate leading to the facility; along with other supporters, they succeeded in disrupting truck traffic for three hours. After negotiations between Richmond police and BNSF security personnel, the protestors were allowed to leave without being arrested for trespassing.

      Rail Labor And Environmentalists Meet

      In the wake of recent high-profile oil train wrecks in West Virginia and Illinois, Richmond played host last weekend to more than 100 railroad and refinery workers, other trade unionists, community organizers, and environmentalists.  They were attending the first of two regional strategy conferences sponsored by Railroad Workers United (RWU) and allied groups. RWU is national rank-and-file organization that seeks to build greater unity among rail industry craft unions long prone to bickering, back stabbing, and estrangement from potential non-labor allies.

      “As railroaders,” the RWU declares, “we know that the safest means of transport is the railroad—far safer than roads and highways, inland waterways, and even pipelines. But the rail industry has taken advantage of a lax regulatory environment, conservative pro-business governments and weakened unions across North America to roll the dice on safety. It’s time for railroad workers, community, and environmental activists to come together and take a stand.”

      One joint project discussed at the March 15 conference is the fight against single employee train crews. After Lac-Megantic was destroyed, the Canadian government banned one-person crews on trains hauling hazardous materials. In the U.S, carriers, big like BNSF continued to seek union approval for staffing reductions (while insisting that transport of crude oil, ethanol, or other flammable cargo would still require two person crews). To stop any further rail labor slide down this slippery slope, RWU rallied conductors to reject a deal their union negotiated with BNSF last year that would have permitted one-person crews.

      Other safety concerns raised at the Richmond meeting included crew fatigue and railway attempts to cut labor costs by operating trains that are longer, heavier, and harder to stop in emergency situations. “Recent oil train derailments are directly linked to the length and weights of trains,” argued Jeff Kurtz, a railroad engineer from Iowa who spoke at the Richmond meeting. “The railroads know how dangerous it is to have 150-ton tank cars running on a 8,000 foot train.” Kurtz expressed confidence that “we can address these problems in a way that would improve the economy and the environment for everyone, “ if labor and climate change activists continue to find common ground.

      RWU organizers are holding a second educational conference on March 21 in Olympia, Washington. According to Seattle switchman-conductor Jen Wallis, this kind of “blue-green” exchange, around rail safety issues, has never been attempted before in the Pacific Northwest. “Rail labor hasn’t worked with environmentalists to the degree that steelworkers and longshoreman and teamsters have, “ Wallis says. “It’s all very new.”

      Steve Early is a former union organizer who lives in Richmond, California. He is the author, most recently, of Save Our Unions from Monthly Review Press. He is currently working on a new book about labor and environmental issues in Richmond.