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Crude By Rail: Neighborhood Disaster Preparedness

The long lines of DOT 111 oil tankers parked outside of the Ezra Prentice complex in Albany are a constant reminder to some residents they are living in the shadow of potential disaster. Critics of crude oil transportation by rail are in pro-active mode when it comes to disaster preparedness.

This week, Albany County Sheriff Department and County Health Department staffers sat down with Ezra Prentice residents in Albany's South End to develop exit and communication plans in the event of an "oil train" derailment, spill or other emergency at the nearby Port.  The decision to get together was made in hopes of banishing a cloud of fear that has hung over the neighborhood for nearly a year.Last July, with the oil train wreck in Quebec that killed 47 people still fresh, US Senator Chuck Schumer came to town to push for new regulations governing tanker car safety.

Sheriff Craig Apple believes having a plan is essential.   "If in fact some sort of crude oil catastrophy happens in the south end, there's going to be chaos and mayhem. People are gonna be running everywhere."

Credit WAMC photo by Dave Lucas
Then-Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings with NY US Senator Chuck Schumer on the grounds of the Federal Building in Albany. (July 2013).

In the event of a derailment, city, county and state emergency responders will evacuate residents and attempt to control any fire or contain any spill.  On September 7th, 1980 more than 100 firefighters braved a series of explosions and fires at the Port of Albany after a gasoline storage tank caught fire. More than a thousand South End residents were evacuated at the time.

Apple suggests folks make a small mental checklist of what to take with them if they have to get out of harm's way.   "Key paperwork. Our birth certificates, marriage licences, whatever the case may be, have that stuff with us that we can take with us and go. Also have a prepared kit, that you could survive with. And we give those kits out to the public."

The kits were handed to Ezra Prentice residents.  "They have basically meals ready to eat. They have some purified water in them, a pocket radio, a flashlight, a poncho, goggles, a small facial respirator, there's gloves, there's tape, there's a small first aid kit. These are things that people will need in a hurry and necessary to survive."

Credit WAMC Composite Photo by Dave Lucas

Common Councilwoman Dorcey Applyrs says residents appreciate the Sheriff's efforts.   "They had more information than they walked in with and felt a little more prepared to deal with an emergency in the event something was to happen.  Given that, residents are still very fearful, but at least they walked away with some information, some knowledge."

Oil trains aren't the only worry in downtown Albany—with the Hudson River running nearby, residents were briefed on the dangers of flooding and epidemic illness, along with what-to-do advice in the event of other possible incidents.

In early Spring, the New York State Environmental Conservation Department demanded regional oil transporter Global Companies LLC respond to a list of questions, including ones about its liability insurance and its capability to handle accidents and fires. The company's earlier permits, relating to storage and shipment of crude, are also under a full review. DEC is examining the response they received and extended the public comment period for a Global Companies permit application to build a heating facility at the Port of Albany until August 1. Meantime, Albany County Executive Dan McCoy's moratorium against oil expansion at the Port continues.

A CSX train equipped with four oil tankers and two classroom cars made a whistle stop Thursday at the Port of Albany as part of a multi-state tour providing enhanced safety training in response to increased shipments of North Dakota crude oil. McCoy appreciates this effort.  "I commend C S X for bring this training for this classroom of 4 oil tankers, it's a step in right direction to basically train the local fire departments and the volunteer fire departments to show them how to respond. If God forbid we get a disaster at the Port of Albany or Bethlehem so you know This is being proactive."

As more oil is transported through New York, DEC Commissioner Joe Martens has asked the federal Environmental Protection Agency to update antiquated spill response plans. 

Albany Democratic Assemblywoman Pat Fahy has introduced the Petroleum Storage Surety bill that would apply to crude oil stored at all bulk storage facilities in New York State. The bill would require financial security to meet all responsibilities for cleanup and decontamination costs associated with the release of such oil.   "What we're requiring is that there be sufficient insurance or a surety bond, to make sure that if something should happen, we'd be covered. Unlike in Quebec, where the taxpayers are on the hook for over a billion dollarsworth of damage to the town where the explosion occurred along with the damage to the waterways, the sewer system and what have you."

Republican State Senator Mark Grisanti of Buffalo is sponsoring the bill in the Senate.

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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