Tag Archives: Albany NY

Ruling by Little-Known Federal Agency Paves Way for Communities to Say No to Oil-by-Rail

Repost from Desmog Blog

Ruling by Little-Known Federal Agency Paves Way for Communities to Say No to Oil-by-Rail

By Justin Mikulka, September 28, 2016 – 03:58
Oil tank care behind a fence with sign reading 'Think first'
Oil tank care behind a fence with sign reading ‘Think first.’ Main image credit: Justin Mikulka

The community of Benicia, [California,] in the crosshairs of history, made one of those decisions that will make a difference for the country. They stood up and said the safety of our communities matters.”

That was Yolo County Supervisor Don Saylor talking to The Sacramento Bee about the vote by the Benicia City Council to deny a new oil-by-rail facility that oil company Valero was seeking.

But that vote would have been meaningless if not for a recent decision on September 20 by the Surface Transportation Board (STB) that gave Benicia the legal authority to have some say over what happens within its borders.

Created in 1996, the STB is a federal agency which serves as “an independent adjudicatory and economic-regulatory agency charged by Congress with resolving railroad rate and service disputes and reviewing proposed railroad mergers.”

The STB decision helped clear up some of the gray areas around the issue of “pre-emption,” in which railroads are not subject to any local or state authorities or laws because local and state laws are “pre-empted” by federal law.

In 2013 the STB ruled in favor of Norfolk Southern Railway Company, saying once again that federal pre-emption of state laws protected the rail company from lawsuits filed in the state of Virginia.

The basic idea of pre-emption is that for interstate commerce to work, the federal government needs to be the sole regulator of railroads.

As we have reported previously on DeSmog, pre-emption can effectively place rail companies above local law. This has led to developments such as the case of Grafton, Massachusetts, where the construction of the largest propane transloading facility in the state occurred without the need for local approval, construction permits, or even environmental review.

Regarding the Grafton facility, the New England Center for Investigative Reporting wrote that, “Residents were dumbfounded: The location was in the middle of a residential neighborhood, less than 2,000 feet from an elementary school and atop the town’s water supply.”

This above-the-law approach has served rail companies well. And until the recent STB decision, it also appeared to protect oil companies who were moving oil by rail.

But this latest decision about Benicia appears to deliver a real blow to oil companies when it comes to oil-by-rail transfer facilities. Since the companies who receive the oil from the rail cars aren’t railroads, the STB ruled that they are not protected by federal pre-emption. In the decision the STB refers to Valero as a “a noncarrier” which is why the STB ruled they are not able to claim pre-emption.

This allowed Benicia to say no to an oil-by-rail facility in their community. And it has also changed the discussion about this industry as a whole.

San Luis Obispo County, California, has now delayed further the decision about a new oil-by-rail facility in order to consider the latest STB ruling.

Ethan Buckner was one of the organizers for environmental advocacy group Stand, which was working to stop the Benicia facility.

This is a victory for the right of communities to say no to refineries’ dangerous oil train projects. The federal government has said once and for all that there is nothing in federal law that prevents cities from denying these oil companies’ dangerous rail projects,” Buckner said. “The oil industry keeps telling communities they have no right to say no to oil trains, but this ruling once and for all refutes this.”

Jackie Prange was one of the lawyers working on the Benicia case for the Natural Resources Defense Council and explained the potential impact of the STB decision to the San Francisco Chronicle.

We’re pleased with the decision and the implications it will have across the country,” said Prange. “This issue is live in a number of sites across the country. This is definitely a decision that I think cities in other states will be looking to.”

They are definitely paying attention in San Luis Obispo County, as well as in Albany, New York.

Albany is the largest oil-by-rail hub on the East Coast.

Opponents of its oil trains recently had cause for celebration. On September 16, the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation announced that the two companies operating oil-by-rail facilities at the Port of Albany would now be required to undergo full environmental reviews before the agency would renew the companies’ permits.

Chris Amato is a lawyer for Earthjustice who has been working on this issue for years. He believes the STB decision supports what Earthjustice has been saying all along about Global Companies, which owns one of Albany’s oil-by-rail facilities.

The decision by the Surface Transportation Board confirms what we have been saying since 2014: that Global’s claim that state regulation of their operations is pre-empted by federal railroad law is simply wrong,” Amato explained to DeSmog. “Global can no longer attempt to shield their operations from scrutiny under their flawed legal theory.”

Opponents of the Albany oil-by-rail operations have been asking the state to step in for years, but the state has also hidden behind the issue of federal pre-emption. In 2014 the Albany Times Union reported that “Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been deflecting calls for the state to block the trains, saying rail transportation is controlled by the federal government, not the state.”

It would appear that the STB ruling negates New York’s current position and offers an option for the state to have authority over oil-by-rail facilities in Albany.

While the amount of oil moving by rail is roughly half of what it was two years ago, that is mostly due to the current low price of oil. And it hasn’t stopped oil companies’ continued efforts to build out more oil-by-rail infrastructure.

Meanwhile, oil trains continue to derail and explode, as happened in Mosier, Oregon, in June, and opposition to the oil-by-rail industry continues to grow.

This STB decision appears to be a game-changer in the oil-by-rail story. With it, perhaps now more politicians will agree that “the safety of our communities matter” — much more so than oil company profits.

EPA says oil train operator violated federal Clean Air Act at Albany facility

Repost from Politico New York

EPA says oil train operator violated federal Clean Air Act at Albany facility

By Scott Waldman, 08/17/16 05:29 AM EDT
Railroad oil tankers line up in Albany, N.Y.
Railroad oil tankers line up in Albany, N.Y. | AP Photo/Mike Groll

ALBANY — One of the main companies that transports crude oil through New York has violated federal clean air standards and may face significant fines, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency documents obtained by POLITICO.

Last month, the EPA issued a notice to Global Companies LLC, saying the company violated the federal Clean Air Act at its oil transportation facility in Albany. According to the documents, Global could face fines of more than $25,000 a day and may have to obtain a new permit for one of its main East Coast shipping routes.

According to the EPA, Global intentionally under-reported air emissions at the facility when it was granted permission to almost quadruple the amount of crude it could transport through Albany.

In 2012, after Global received state permission to increase the amount of crude it transported through Albany from about 500,000 gallons a year to almost 2 billion gallons, the company reported an increase in air emissions of 39.5 tons per year of volatile organic compounds.

But after a months-long investigation, the EPA determined the amount Global reported was far less than what it was actually emitting.

The increase Global claimed is just under the 40-tons-per-year limit that would require a new set of air permits, and likely lead to costly equipment upgrades and additional project delays.

“Global violated the (Clean Air) Act and the federally enforceable New York state implementation plan by increasing the throughput of crude oil at its petroleum storage facility located at 50 Church Street, Albany, New York without complying with the new source review requirements of the New York SIP,” wrote Dore LaPosta, director of the Division of Enforcement and Compliance Assistance at the EPA.

Edward Faneuil, Global’s executive vice president, denied the facility was out of compliance.

“With respect to the Notice of Violation issued by the EPA alleging violations of the Clean Air Act at its Albany facility, Global Partners is in compliance with regulatory and permitting requirements at that facility, including requirements under the CAA,” Faneuil said in a statement Tuesday. “We remain fully committed to operating all of our facilities in a safe, legal and environmentally responsible manner, and we will vigorously defend ourselves against any claims to the contrary.”

Global needs to obtain air permits for the facilities it uses during the crude oil transportation process, which includes equipment to offload oil train tankers.

Albany has become a national hub for crude oil trains, which bring the product from North Dakota and transport it to refineries along the East Coast. Public scrutiny of oil train safety has increased after a series of accidents in recent years, including one in July 2013 that killed dozens of people in Canada. In Albany, the oil trains run on tracks that are located next to a public housing facility and have been stored adjacent to a playground.

On Wednesday, EPA officials will meet with local residents affected by the oil train surge in Albany.

The Cuomo administration has allowed the oil transportation companies to increase the amount of crude they bring through Albany. Since it received permission to increase the amont of oil it transports, Global has also sought to add a crude oil heater that would allow it to bring in thick tar sands. However, the state Department of Environmental Conservation has delayed a decision on that proposal and is now locked in a legal battle with the company.

Local residents, including many who live at the public housing project, have complained that emissions from the Albany facility are causing health problems. In 2014, state regulators determined that the air quality in the area was not harmful.

The EPA investigation echoes claims of a lawsuit filed earlier this year by Albany County and a coalition of environmental groups, which contend Global Companies failed to obtain the proper air permits for its crude-handling facility at the Port of Albany. In the lawsuit, the groups claim Global failed to install proper pollution controls when it increased the amount of crude oil handled at the facility.

View the EPA document here: http://politi.co/2bpiO6R

Video: Bomb Trains on the Hudson River

Repost from HudsonRiverAtRisk.com
[Editor:  Another excellent regional video about the potential for horrific environmental impacts due to crude by rail.  We are doing our best to guarantee that the marshlands, valleys, cities and towns of Northern California don’t become the next Hudson River Valley, transporting billions of gallons of Bakken Crude every year.  – RS]


By Jon Bowermaster, July 13, 2015

The sight of long trains made up of one hundred-plus black, cylindrical cars, rolling slowly through cities and towns across North America – often within yards of office buildings, hospitals and schools — has become commonplace.

Few who see them know that these sinister-looking cars carry a highly flammable mixture of gas and oil from the shale fields of North Dakota. At thirty thousand gallons per car, each of these trains carries more than three million gallons of highly flammable and toxic fuel, earning them the nickname “bomb trains.”

I see them on a daily basis in the Hudson Valley, whether stacked up four-deep alongside the thruway in Albany, crossing an aging trestle bridge in Kingston, rolling behind strip malls and health care facilities in Ulster, paralleling the very edge of the Hudson River. Several of the long, ominous-looking trains snake south from Albany to refineries in Philadelphia every day, crossing New Jersey, paralleling Manhattan.

And this oil/gas combo is not just moving by rail: Last year three billion gallons of crude that arrived in Albany by train from the North Dakota were offloaded to tanks and then barges to be shipped downriver. The very first tanker carrying crude oil ran aground, a dozen miles south of the Port of Albany; thankfully its interior hull was not breached.

The boom in this train traffic – in 2009 there were 9,000 of the black rail cars, today there are more than 500,000 – correlates directly with the boom in fracking of gas and oil across the U.S. Record amounts of both are being pulled out of the ground in the Dakotas, Colorado, Texas and thirty other states and needs to be delivered to refineries. Pipelines take time to build and often run into community resistance; since there are railways already leading in every direction the oil and gas industry has taken them over. In 2010, 55,000 barrels of crude oil were shipped by rail each day in the U.S.; today it is more than 1 million barrels … per day.

During the same period there’s been another corollary, a boom in horrific railway accidents resulting in derailments, spills, fires and explosions. Sometimes they occur near fragile wetlands (Aliceville, AL, November 2013); sometimes in neighborhoods where hundreds must be evacuated (Casselton, ND, December 2013); and sometimes in the middle of a town (Lac-Megantic, Quebec, July 2013, where 47 people were killed in a midnight derailment).

Since February 14 a half-dozen of these “bomb trains” have derailed and spilled or exploded, in Illinois, Ontario and West Virginia, leaving widespread destruction and environmental damage in their wake. A half-mile on either side of the tracks is considered within the “blast zone” when these fuel-laden trains crash. Increasingly they are mentioned as potential terrorist weapons.

bomb_train_accidents_2013-2015Efforts to regulate this explosion of shipping by rail has proven difficult. It seems that no one wants to accept the responsibility (or costs) of improving the safety of the cars, the tracks, the infrastructure they run over or the volatile fuel. On May 2 the Department of Transportation issued some new rules and regulations regarding the speed trains can travel at through communities, required updated and safer rail cars and more, but most of the proposed changes don’t take effect for many years. Environmental advocates are not hopeful for much quick change given the powerful lobbying efforts of the gas, oil and rail industries.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has previously said there was little the state could do to slow the traffic, but even he is concerned about the possibility of accident; last month the governor’s office issued a complaint after investigating train cars coming into Albany and citing 84 “defects.”

Opposition to new safety rules comes despite that the D.O.T. estimates that if this pace of shipping continues there will be fifteen major accidents every year and one of the enormity of Lac-Megantic (47 people killed) every two years.

“Even if new measures are adopted,” says Roger Downs, an Albany-based attorney with the Sierra Club’s Atlantic Chapter, “it still feels like a half-baked plan to address a wholly inappropriate way to move oil.”


Blocking the Bomb Trains: Nationwide Protests On Lac-Megantic Anniversary

Repost from DeSmogBlog
[Editor:  See also video coverage of the Portland vigil on WMTW8 ABC TV.  – RS]

Blocking the Bomb Trains: Nationwide Protests On Lac-Megantic Anniversary

By Justin Mikulka, July 6, 2015 – 16:35
Portland Climate Action Coalition Blocks Rail Tracks on Anniversary of Lac Mégantic Disaster

It’s corporate greed versus the common good, whether it’s rail safety or climate change.”

Those were the words of Lowen Berman, a Portland activist involved in a blockade of oil train tracks to mark the second anniversary of the Lac-Megantic oil train disaster.

Berman and 60 other activists protested in Portland today as part of a national Oil Train Week of Protests led by 350.org and ForestEthics.

A Portland, OR, memorial to the 47 people incinerated by a bomb train in Lac Megantic. photo courtesy of Climate Action Coalition

Portland’s Climate Action Coalition sponsored the blockade at Arc Logistics for a memorial service on the two-year anniversary of the oil train derailment that killed 47 people in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec.

While activists in Portland were protesting against the danger of bomb trains on the anniversary of the disaster in Lac-Megantic, activists in Lac-Megantic were also marching.

Emotions and politics are tied together in this, unfortunately,” Jonathan Santerre, an activist and founder of the Carré bleu Lac-Mégantic citizens’ group told the Montreal Gazette. “It’s shocking that after everything that happened, people’s lives still come second to money.”

Santerre has a point. As detailed on DeSmogBlog, the events in Lac-Megantic can be directly attributed to corporate cost cutting.

In Portland, the activists were blockading tracks where oil trains travel weekly through North Portland. The Climate Action Coalition is calling for an end to fossil fuel development and an immediate transition to a renewable energy.

At the same time, a new report by the Sightline Institute predicts that if all of the currently planned projects for oil-by-rail infrastructure in the Northwest are completed, they would require more than 100 loaded mile-long trains per week to traverse the Northwest’s railway system.

And residents along the tracks are becoming increasingly aware of the threats. In addition to the protests in Portland, activists were arrested in Benicia, California today protesting the oil trains.

In Albany, New York — the largest distribution hub on the East coast for oil trains, earning it the nickname Houston on the Hudson — there was another protest.

There is much to fear among residents living near the tracks within the blast zone, and you certainly don’t have to be an environmentalist to care about this public safety threat. Sadly, The Hill suggests that this whole week will be marked by protests by “greens.”

There is no doubt that there is increased awareness and efforts to try to protect the millions of people who live near the tracks carrying dangerous oil trains. However, as we wrote over a year ago here at DeSmog, the people of Lac-Megantic still want the executives at the top to be held accountable. As one local said at that time as they arrested the train engineer and other low level employees involved in the Lac-Megantic disaster, “It’s not them we want.”

With the new rail regulations doing little to protect people, and the CEOs of rail and oil companies supporting lawsuits challenging the new weak regulations, it is unlikely things will change. As the Portland activist said today, “It’s corporate greed versus the common good.”

Lac-Megantic is a stark example of how corporate greed is winning.