Oil train risks push communities to prepare for worst – “Little Black Bullets”

Repost from Poughkeepsie Journal
[Editor: Significant quote: “The U.S. Department of Transportation acknowledged in its proposed rule that an another accident isn’t a question of if, but when.  “Absent this proposed rule, we predict about 15 mainline derailments for 2015, falling to a prediction of about 5 mainline derailments annually by 2034,” the department’s proposal stated. Reviews and lawsuits mean it could be years before the rule is implemented.”  – RS]

Oil train risks push communities to prepare for worst

Khurram Saeed   |   August 21, 2014
The home of Doris Quinones is less than 100 feet away from the CSX railroad track, on which as many as 4 oil trains pass by every day, not to mention freight trains carrying other hazardous chemicals. An oil train is seen passing from the yard of Doris Quinones, July 31, 2014 in Haverstraw.(Photo: Tania Savayan/The Journal News)

Little black bullets.

That’s what Doris Quinones calls the dozens of outdated tank cars filled with crude oil that rumble yards away from her Haverstraw home every day.

One train hauling oil can have up to 100 cars, and as many as 30 oil trains pass through Rockland each week on the way to refineries. That’s twice the number from just six months ago as demand continues to grow for the volatile crude oil drawn from the Bakken region in North Dakota.

Those trains also pass through Ulster County.

In Highland, the trains roll past a restaurant and a Hudson River waterfront park that is being outfitted with a new deep-water dock for tour boats.

Ulster County’s vulnerable infrastructure includes drinking water intakes for Port Ewen and the Town of Lloyd.

A 100-car oil train can carry 3 million gallons of crude oil, and because so many more are on the rails, the number of derailments and accidents is rising.

The oil trains, which do not travel on a set schedule, roll through four of Rockland’s five towns on CSX Railroad’s River Line. Fully loaded trains run north to south, less than a mile from Helen Hayes Hospital in West Haverstraw, Lake DeForest reservoir in Clarkstown, the Palisades Center in West Nyack and Dominican College in Blauvelt, not to mention dozens of neighborhoods, scores of schools and day care centers and right past key highways like the Thruway.

Given her proximity to the tracks, Quinones said a derailed train would “land in my living room.”

“We’re all realists,” Quinones said recently in her backyard, where she sometimes lounges in her swimming pool and tends to her cucumbers. “They got to get something somewhere. It’s got to go on the freight train but they got to take extra measures even if it costs them more money.”

The oil trains are hard to miss, and the safety issues surrounding them, particularly their tank cars, have become harder to ignore. There have been a number of fiery explosions and accidents since 2013 that have caused officials at all levels to look closer at the dangers of shipping oil by rail.

Just over a year ago, 47 people died when an unattended oil train derailed and exploded in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. Rockland had a close call in December when an oil train transporting 99 empty tank cars from Philadelphia to North Dakota hit a truck stuck on the crossing in West Nyack, sending the truck’s driver to the hospital.

Planning for worst

Peter Miller, chief of the Highland Fire District, said firefighters took part in a drill in Kingston on May 30, along with other fire departments. The drill was sponsored by the Ulster County Emergency Services Department and CSX.

He said the district’s response plans are constantly being updated, particularly now that the Bakken crude is rolling through.

“We upgrade our training and our response plans to cover what we would do, depending on where the incident is,” he said.

Even as federal transportation officials are proposing more stringent requirements for tank cars to make them safer, Rockland’s first responders are planning for nightmare scenarios and how to evacuate thousands of people quickly in a catastrophe or have them stay where they are.

“Our job is to really plan for the worst,” said Chris Jensen, Rockland County’s hazardous materials coordinator.

Rockland emergency officials are finishing the evacuation map for residents and businesses within a mile of the River Line.

It covers a mile on either side of the rail line, broken into half-mile sections, from Bear Mountain to the New Jersey border.

Gordon Wren Jr., director of Rockland’s Office of Fire and Emergency Services, said the map “allows us to make the decisions quicker, faster.”

“Do you evacuate or not? If so, how far?” Wren said.

The map identifies schools, day care centers, nursing homes and senior housing, among other landmarks.

“(A police officer) can look at that and say, ‘Let’s get the people out of here,’ ” said Dan Greeley, assistant director of the county Office of Fire and Emergency Services. “It happens instantaneously.”

The U.S. Department of Transportation acknowledged in its proposed rule that an another accident isn’t a question of if, but when.

“Absent this proposed rule, we predict about 15 mainline derailments for 2015, falling to a prediction of about 5 mainline derailments annually by 2034,” the department’s proposal stated. Reviews and lawsuits mean it could be years before the rule is implemented.

In 2008, just 9,500 carloads of crude oil moved by rail. Last year, the figure exceeded 400,000, the Association of American Railroads said.

Rail industry officials note that 99.9 percent of all hazardous rail shipments reach their destinations safely and that only rail has afforded the nation the flexibility to move large volumes of oil so quickly and freely, letting the United States wean itself off foreign oil.

Susan Christopherson, chair of Cornell University’s city and regional planning department, said though pipelines are safer, oil shippers from western Canada and the Bakken shale region prefer trains because they provide flexibility from different points of origin to refineries nationwide.

The problem, she said, is the Federal Railroad Administration has “little capacity” to regulate the rail industry or monitor rail infrastructure safety.

“Costs for emergency preparedness have to be absorbed by state and local government,” Christopherson wrote in an email. “There is little or no compensation for these costs, which can be significant.”

Under Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the state has become increasingly proactive, carrying out inspection blitzes of rail yards and leveling fines.

‘Witches’ brew’

The River Line, part of CSX’s rail network, runs from outside Albany. In February, the railroad told The Journal News that two oil trains used the line daily, or 14 a week. By June, the railroad fixed the number of trains hauling 1 million gallons or more of Bakken crude at 15 to 30, or up to four each day, according to documents it had to file with the state.

CSX spokesman Gary Sease said there have been incremental increases in crude oil volume over the past several weeks with likely more to come. The railroad recently completed double-tracking work in north Rockland to increase capacity on the track.

“It is a result of market conditions and can fluctuate,” Sease wrote in an email.

“We see customers investing in additional crude oil terminals over the next couple of years.”

Bakken crude oil is just the latest dangerous substance to travel the line, Jensen said. Toxic substances such as chlorine, ethanol, propane and vinyl chloride have moved on the former West Shore line for decades.

“It’s a witches’ brew of stuff,” Jensen said.

But one big difference is the amount of Bakken crude that passes through Ulster, Rockland and, for that matter, 15 other counties in New York.

Aside from CSX, Canadian Pacific Railway hauls Bakken crude from the Midwest to Albany, with an average of one train a day with a million-plus gallons.

In May, CSX began a first responders training program by bringing equipment and experts to communities to teach them about incidents involving crude oil. More than 1,000 people have been trained, he said.

That’s a good start but more needs to be done, said Jerry DeLuca, executive director and CEO of the New York State Association of Fire Chiefs.

“You don’t fight an oil fire with water. We need to have foam and a lot of it,” said DeLuca, whose group represents more than 11,000 professional and volunteer fire chiefs. “It’s not something we utilize every day, so you have to be trained.”

Poughkeepsie Journal staff writer John Ferro contributed to this report.