Federal action seen as boost to local, state control over projects
By Brian Nearing, Thursday, September 29, 2016 10:03 pm
ALBANY > A federal ruling on a oil-by-rail facility in California could hand state and local officials in New York and across the country a powerful legal tool to oversee the projects, which have been controlled primarily by federal rules.
The federal Surface Transportation Board this month sided with officials in Benicia, a small city near San Francisco, in a dispute with an oil refining company over a proposed storage terminal for crude oil brought in by tanker trains. The Valero Refining Company had argued it was exempt from a city denial because it was functioning as a rail carrier, and governed by federal transportation rules — a legal concept called “preemption” — but the federal board rejected the claim.
“Valero is not a rail carrier, nor is it acting under the auspices of a rail carrier,” according to the federal decision. Critics of oil train traffic directed in recent years to two oil terminals at the Port of Albany hailed the ruling as a victory for more state and local control.
“This puts the state Department of Environmental Conservation in a very strong position to require the oil terminals to explain the full impacts of their operations,” said Chris Amato, an attorney for the not-for-profit environmental group Earthjustice.
This month, the DEC announced it was requiring one terminal operator, Global Partners, to answer additional environmental questions on its request to construct a crude oil heating terminal that could be used to process Canadian tar sands oil.
“Nothing in the opinion suggests that DEC’s current course of action with respect the Port of Albany should be altered,” a DEC statement said.
Critics of earlier DEC environmental approvals for the Global and Buckeye oil terminals have been urging the state to rescind its approvals, but the state had responded that such authority rested with the federal government, not the state.
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 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.
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.
“After years of exhaustive research and examination of the science and facts, prohibiting high-volume hydraulic fracturing is the only reasonable alternative,” said New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joe Martens in a statement. “High-volume hydraulic fracturing poses significant adverse impacts to land, air, water, natural resources and potential significant public health impacts that cannot be adequately mitigated. This decision is consistent with DEC’s mission to conserve, improve and protect our state’s natural resources, and to enhance the health, safety and welfare of the people of the state.”
The Findings Statement concludes that “there are no feasible or prudent alternatives that adequately avoid or minimize adverse environmental impacts and address risks to public health from this activity.” Two groups heavily involved in the campaign, New Yorkers Against Fracking and Americans Against Fracking, praised the decision.
Mark Ruffalo, an advisory board member of Americans Against Fracking, worked diligently to ban fracking in his home state and recently made an appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart to encourage the U.S. to go 100 percent renewable by 2050. In a statement on the finalization of New York’s ban on fracking, Ruffalo said:
I applaud the Cuomo Administration for protecting the public health and safety of New Yorkers by finalizing the ban on high volume fracking. Governor Cuomo has set a precedent for the nation by carefully considering the science, which shows a range of public health and environmental harms, and doing what’s best for the people, not the special interests of Big Oil and Gas. Already, other states and countries are following New York’s lead, with prohibitions including Maryland, Scotland, Wales and just today a crucial county in England. Along with many New Yorkers, I look forward to working on advancing renewable energy and efficiency, showing the world that a cleaner, healthier, renewable energy future is possible. Today I’m proud and thankful to be a New Yorker.
Industry groups have, of course, threatened to sue but the attorneys at Earthjustice are confident that the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s exhaustive review “will withstand legal challenge” and Earthjustice pledges “to stand alongside the state in any legal challenge.”
“Today, nearly a year to the day after communities won the right to ban fracking, New York’s historic statewide ban on fracking is now the law of the land,” says Earthjustice Managing Attorney Deborah Goldberg, who represented the town of Dryden, New York, which won its precedent-setting fracking ban case one year ago tomorrow. “We salute Governor Andrew Cuomo’s refusal to bow to industry pressure. He had the courage to do what no other state or federal leader has had the courage to do: let the available scientific evidence dictate whether fracking should proceed in New York.”
New York now joins Vermont in outlawing the practice altogether, which has been banned in the Green Mountain state since 2012. As Ruffalo mentioned, this spring Maryland approved a moratorium on fracking in the state until October 2017. Scotland and Wales have also instituted moratoriums. And today a county in England rejected applications for fracking permits, which the Wall Street Journal says “effectively extends the moratorium on fracking in the U.K.” Meanwhile, Texas and Oklahoma both passed legislation this spring, barring local municipalities from instituting fracking bans.
“New Yorkers can celebrate the fact that we won’t be subjected to the toxic pollution and health risks fracking inevitably brings,” said Alex Beauchamp, northeast region director for Food & Water Watch. “By banning fracking, Governor Cuomo stood up to the oil and gas industry, and in so doing became a national leader on health and the environment. He set a standard for human health and safety that President Obama and other state leaders should be striving for.”
Repost from The Albany Times Union [Editor: Has anyone researched similar legal authority in California? Under what jurisdictional authority would Governor Brown have power to stop crude oil trains, regardless of federal preemption? – RS]
State’s next gamble is oil trains
By Christopher Amato and Charlene Benton, March 19, 2015
Having won approval for legalized casino gambling in New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is now rolling the dice on oil trains. The string of oil train disasters over the last year and a half, including four derailments in the past month in West Virginia, Illinois and Ontario resulting in massive fires, explosions and air and water pollution, shows that transporting crude oil in unsafe rail cars poses a significant threat to New Yorkers’ lives and property and the state’s natural resources.
Indeed, the oil train report prepared at the governor’s direction by five state agencies and the scores of oil train safety violations detected by federal and state inspectors confirm the dangers of transporting oil in unsafe rail cars. Yet the governor refuses to use the state’s authority to end this hazardous practice. Instead, he claims — incorrectly — that only the federal government has the authority to protect New Yorkers from the dangers of oil trains.
The Environmental Conservation Law authorizes the commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation to order the immediate discontinuance of any condition or activity that he finds “presents an imminent danger to the health or welfare of the people of the state or results in or is likely to result in irreversible or irreparable damage to natural resources.”
In 1990, then-DEC Commissioner Tom Jorling ordered several companies to halt the transportation of oil and sludge in unsafe barges. In that case, a federal appeals court ruled that federal law did not prevent the commissioner from exercising his emergency authority.
In October 2014, we submitted a petition to DEC on behalf of a broad coalition of community and environmental organizations requesting that Commissioner Joe Martens use his authority to prohibit the receipt and storage of crude oil in unsafe rail cars at the Albany oil terminals operated by Global Cos. and Buckeye Partners. Recently, DEC rejected the petition in a two-page letter, claiming that only the federal government can act to protect New Yorkers.
If, as the federal appeals court has held, federal law does not prevent the DEC commissioner from ordering an emergency halt to the transport of oil and sludge in unsafe barges, why can’t the commissioner order a halt to the receipt and storage of crude oil in unsafe rail cars? Given the high stakes, isn’t this course of action at least worth trying?
The Cuomo administration has repeatedly claimed that New York is the most aggressive state in the nation taking action on the threats posed by the rail transportation of highly volatile crude oil. But a recent news story reported that dangerous oil train shipments in New York have expanded on Cuomo’s watch, while other states like Washington are blocking crude-by-rail projects or requiring a full environmental, health and safety review of such projects.
The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that an average of 10 oil train derailments will occur each year for the next two decades, and predicts that a derailment in a populated area — such as Albany — could kill hundreds of people and result in billions of dollars in damages. It is time for the Cuomo administration to stop gambling that New York will escape the type of oil train catastrophe that has already occurred in Alabama, Virginia, North Dakota, West Virginia, Illinois, Ontario, New Brunswick, and Quebec. If the governor’s luck runs out, it may cost New Yorkers their lives.