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Pushing back against crude oil transport in New York


Neale Gulley/RK
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Neale Gulley/RK

Neale Gulley/RK

Hundreds of Albany residents attended a public meeting earlier this month to voice their outrage over the city’s growing place at the center of a new crude oil-by-rail “virtual pipeline” – a process that until now has been subject to virtually no public scrutiny.

Every day, trains carrying millions of gallons of explosive “light” crude from the Bakken shale in North Dakota pass within feet of residential neighborhoods and public buildings en route to a Port of Albany oil terminal owned by Massachusetts-based Global Partners LP.

Many of those who attended the meeting at Giffen Elementary School Feb. 12 had only recently learned of the vast new cargo that has quietly begun rolling into town.

After a brief presentation by a representative from Global, their voices quickly joined the chorus of unhappy citizens groups, politicians and environmental advocates including Riverkeeper in calling for a full environmental review of oil-related activities at the port, and the rescinding of a recent DEC permit approval allowing Global to build heating systems to increase its ability to handle heavier varieties of crude oil.

Some of those who spoke out against such plans reside at the Ezra Prentice housing tract on Pearl Street, just a stone’s throw from the terminal and railroad tracks that serve it. In no uncertain terms they told the DEC, company representatives and city officials that the risk of a deadly derailment or explosion is unacceptable in the neighborhood where they live.

Many of the other 70-plus people who took the microphone blamed the DEC for its older approval of increased oil traffic at the port, and most recently regarding a request by Global to add seven boilers at the terminal intended to heat more viscous forms of crude oil – a product notorious for its impurity and, because it can sink in water, near impossibility to recover if spilled in the Hudson River.

Citizens and environmental groups including Riverkeeper are requesting a full environmental review of Global’s current application to install heating units as well as previous permits to expand oil throughput at the port. A 2012 permit was authorized to more than double the amount of oil that can be handled there annually, now some 2.8 billion gallons. For more background on the issue, visit Riverkeeper’s campaign page

Regarding the ongoing plans to add boilers at the facility, the company continued to withhold specifics about exactly what sort of crude oil it plans to heat. Many have speculated the product may be Alberta tar sands oil, considered one of the dirtiest and heaviest known forms of crude – so heavy it must be heated to flow through pipes from rail cars to tanks to barges.

Once word of the heating facility surfaced, groups including Riverkeeper successfully lobbied the DEC to extend a public comment period related to an air permit modification the plan requires. DEC, which has stressed that only the air permit process is under its authority, had determined no negative air impacts would be generated by plan, but scheduled the comment session after the negative declaration surfaced amid growing public pressure about increased oil shipments thought the region.

The Bakken oil currently moving down the valley is the same volatile substance involved in a spate of fiery derailments in 2013, and the same responsible for 47 deaths in Lac Megantic, Quebec, last July, when a runaway freight train derailed and exploded in the city’s downtown business district.

Global’s terminal at 50 Church St. sits directly between the Kenwood rail yard and the Hudson River, where the company loads the product onto southbound barges destined for east coast refineries. Many millions of gallons of additional crude oil enters the Hudson Valley on trains that bypass the port and head south along the Hudson River’s west shore, across the many tributaries feeding some 150 miles of irreplaceable habitat.

It has been a year fraught with accidents, explosions and devastating spills on the nation’s railways and waterways, with more oil spilled from trains in 2013 than was reported in the previous four decades combined.

Given how quickly but quietly the port of Albany has become a major hub for the continent’s domestic oil boom, it’s perhaps no surprise that it wasn’t until around the time the accidents started piling up that residents in the state’s capital started noticing the trains in their back yards – each one up to a mile long and made up of 80 to 120 black, cylindrical tanker cars. The cars, known as DOT-111s, have been called inadequate and prone to rupture by the National Transportation Safety Board and industry groups representing the railroads themselves, for years.

The accidents of the last several months are one consequence the inadequate cars, combined with an unprecedented domestic oil boom that has rapidly increased the reliance on railroads to carry oil to coastal refineries. There has been a roughly 4,000 percent increase in oil by rail since 2008, according to federal data. In New York state, the new crude-oil trains deliver to Global’s terminal on tracks running south along Lake Champlain, and from the mid-west across the state and down the Hudson River’s west shore, bypassing the port.

TAKE ACTION: Protect the river and our communities by telling the DEC to fully study risks from crude oil transport!

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Write letters to the editor of your local newspaper expressing your concerns.

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