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Rail inspections on crude oil route: Too little, too late

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Rail bridge near Storm King Mountain.
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Rail bridge near Storm King Mountain.

Rail bridge near Storm King Mountain.

A reality check on Tuesday’s news release, Governor Cuomo Announces Results of Latest Round of Rail Safety Inspections:

Thanks for the inspections Governor, but this is too little, too late.

“…another round of targeted crude oil tank car and rail inspections, which uncovered 93 defects, including seven critical safety defects that required immediate corrective action, and two hazardous materials violations. The inspections are the latest in a series of actions that state agencies are taking at the direction of the Governor to protect New Yorkers from the potential dangers associated with the transport of crude oil by freight rail companies. State and federal teams examined 453 crude oil tank cars and approximately 148 miles of track in these inspections.”

What about the rest of the crude oil rail in the state? Extrapolating from the defects found with 453 cars and only 148 miles of track yields an enormous number of defects, some critical, still rolling through our communities and along our rivers.

Why not inspect all cars when they enter the state – at the border?
Who is paying for these inspections? We assume that New York Department of Transportation staff are paid with New York State tax dollars. Federal Railroad Administration staff by our federal taxes.

Are there fines for defects found which offset the cost to taxpayers of the inspections and provide a deterrent? If there are no fines then what incentive do rail companies have to inspect themselves? They can just roll along, blowing up now and then, here and there, with no accountability.

Note that inspections don’t guarantee at all that there will not be an accident here. In several of the recent derailments and explosions we’ve read in the press that the rails where these accidents occurred had recently been inspected.

“- Newburgh in Orange County to Haverstraw in Rockland County;”
“CSX Mainline Track Inspection – Newburgh to Haverstraw
NYSDOT and FRA track inspectors examined approximately 22 miles of track and two switches along the CSX mainline from Newburgh to Haverstraw. The inspectors found one critical defect – deteriorated cross ties along a short section of track – which has since been repaired. The inspectors also found four non-critical defects, including loose switch bolts and insufficient ballast.”

BridgeNearStormKing2loresWe have documented two degraded rail bridges in this section which were brought to the attention of the FRA by Sen. Charles Schumer. The same bridges were featured in a prime time WABC-TV investigation. A bridge engineer was interviewed and stated that the worst of the two bridges should be taken out of service “immediately.” To our knowledge the Senator has never received a response and these bridges are not discussed in the states blitz advisory. Were these bridges inspected or not? If so, did they pass? We, the Senator and WABC would like to see the FRA or NYSDOT inspections report on these bridges, and for that matter, all the rail company owned bridges in NYS over which crude oil passes.

“To date, state agencies are working to implement all 12 state government recommendations and have completed five. Specifically, New York State has taken 66 actions to better prepare state and local responders in the event of a crude oil incident as detailed in a progress report released earlier last December.”

Sounds good…but talk is really cheap. In NONE of the accidents across North America has any significant amount of spilled crude been recovered from a waterway or River. At a recent meeting a federal spill expert (who needs to stay anonymous) stated, “we never recover this stuff (Bakken). We have to get used to the idea that unless we’re there within an hour or so with every tool we need we’ll never recover any of it.” And to date we have never heard any first responder state that they can fight the kind of fire which results in these accidents. In report after report we read that the fire was left to “burn itself out.” How would that work in downtown Albany, Kingston, Newburgh, Haverstraw, to name just a few communities? To our knowledge, not ONE firefighter in NYS has stated that there is any capacity to do otherwise. A fire chief from Maine who responded to the Lac Megantic derailment and fire recently talked to Rockland first responders about what Lac-Megantic was like: he asked “How big is six city blocks for you guys? A lot of buildings are going to be destroyed. A lot of people are going to die.” That’s the perspective of a trained professional who has seen an accident versus a politician’s spin.

“- Increase the fees for oil transported through New York to 13.75 cents per barrel. This is an increase from 12.25 cents for oil imported into the state, and 1.5 cents for transshipped oil, irrespective of whether the oil remains in New York or is transferred on to another State;
– Increase the Oil Spill Response and Prevention Fund by 60 percent, from $25 million to $40 million to ensure the solvency of the fund and provide the necessary funding for staff and associated preparedness costs;”

Why is there no fee on oil trains moving through the state? Those fees should not only apply to oil transfer and storage points like the Port of Albany. Again, look at all the accidents which have occurred, look at the evidence. The accidents are just not happening at tank farms or oil terminals where oil is transferred from rail car to barge or ship. They are also happening underway at random locations along the rail corridor. Two trains carrying 3 million gallons each roll down the Hudson Valley through numerous communities and right next to the Hudson every day. At any moment a derailment, spill and fire might occur which could look EXACTLY like the one in Lac Megantic or the derailments and spills into rivers which we’ve seen lately (or much worse).

And $40 million is chump change. The Kalamazoo spill and the Lac Megantic spill cleanups are each over a BILLION now, and climbing. Yes, we hear that after the state spends its initial $40 million the feds are going to JUMP in and cover it all. Right? How has that worked out after Katrina, the Gulf BP spill and Sandy. We’ll have to hold our breaths a long, long time.

Finally, as the Governor touts his inspections let’s not forget that the Governor has given NYS tax dollars to CSX to add passing lanes at Ravena and oat other locations across the state. Why are tax dollars being given to multi-billion dollar companies to ADD capacity for oil trains in our state?

And few are aware that the DEC, which the Governor controls, gave the permits to industry which allows crude oil to be trans loaded from rail to barge in Albany (millions of gallons per day – 2.8 billion gallons per year). These were air quality permits which did not consider, in the least, the risk of derailments, incinerated communities, spills of un-recoverable oil into our Rivers or reservoirs – the permits only considered air quality at the Albany oil terminal facilities. That’s not environmental review, that’s laughable. The Governor’s DEC can retract those permits at any time. THAT action would help protect us and our Rivers, his inspections don’t. He isn’t protecting us from the risk of crude oil transport – he’s facilitating it.

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