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Enviro Health Group Maps Crude Oil Train Risks To Schools

A public health group has mapped what it calls new risks posed to children who attend schools near crude oil train lines in the Hudson Valley as well as throughout New York. Environmental groups added their voices to the discussion in calling on regulators and the rail industry to take action.

Non-profit Albany-based Healthy Schools Network, an advocate for children’s environmental health at schools, Thursday released two interactive maps highlighting schools’ proximity to rail lines that are traversed by trains carrying crude oil. Claire Barnett is Healthy Schools Network executive director.

“So the spike in oil train traffic across the state really represents for us an unexamined and unaddressed risk to children’s health, to their safety, and to the environment,” says Barnett.

The statewide map identifies 351 schools close to both the CSX and Canadian Pacific rail lines, while the Hudson River Valley map, encompassing Department of Environmental Conservation Regions 3 and 4, shows 101 public and private schools, as well as BOCES facilities, between Albany and the New Jersey border, covering five counties – Albany, Greene, Ulster, Orange, and Rockland. In addition to releasing the maps with support from a number of environmental groups, Barnett called on regulators and the rail industry to take a number of steps.

“We are collectively calling on state and federal agencies to do a number of things,” says Barnett. “That begins with the rail transporters and their regulatory agencies to reduce the speed of crude oil trains near all public and private schools and sensitive natural resources. That’s paramount.”

Ed Greenberg is spokesman for the American Association of Railroads, an organization that focuses on the safety and productivity of the U.S. freight rail industry. He says he would need more details to comment on speed restrictions, but says the rail industry has been collaborating with regulators and other stakeholders in making rail transportation safer. A request for comment from the Federal Railroad Administration was not returned.

Barnett’s group and the others also are calling for additional support to first responders, emergency management coordinators, and communities; and aid to k-12 schools and child-care facilities close to rail lines for evacuation and sheltering-in-place plans. In addition, says Barnett:

“Finally, we’re calling on New York State to work with the federal government to significantly increase all these rail inspections and repair of rail infrastructure. And this is a major issue,” Barnett says. “It’s not unique to the Hudson Valley. We did a large public meeting up in Plattsburgh, in the northeastern part of the state, close to the Canadian border. The issues are identical. It’s oil and water don’t mix and oil and children don’t mix, and everybody agrees with that.”

Greenberg says the rail industry has increased track inspections and trackside safety technology, enhanced braking systems, intensified community relations programs and stepped-up emergency response capability planning and training, including $5 million to develop specialized crude-by-rail training. Sarah McTasney lives in Rockland County. Her 8-year-old daughter attends West Nyack Elementary School, about a half-mile from the tracks.

“So with the increase in traffic comes an increase in danger,” says McTasney. “And when you’re talking about children, you’re talking about a different kind of evacuation plan. You’re talking about something that needs to be structured. You’re talking about communication plans that need to be open so that everybody knows exactly what is going on.”

She says school district officials have been responsive. Kate Hudson is watershed program director for environmental group Riverkeeper, which has its own maps depicting the potential impact area of a crude oil train accident. She talks about Riverkeeper’s role in teaming up with Healthy Schools Network on the issue.

“We recognize and it is the case that there is a much broader constituency than just people who are focused on the environment and focused on the river that is potentially impacted by this,” says Hudson. “And I think the more voices that we bring to the issue, the more likely that something will be done.”

She points out that up to 40 trains, each carrying 120 rails cars with 30,000 gallons of crude oil, pass through the Hudson Valley each week. Barnett, Hudson, and officials from Clearwater and Scenic Hudson point to the July 2013 oil train tragedy in Quebec, along with other oil train accidents, as a sign of not if, but when the Hudson Valley will fall victim.

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