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More Questions About Oil Trains After Derailments

(Flickr) Governor Andrew Cuomo

Citizens living along the Hudson River in downtown Albany are in a heightened state of awareness and worry over those so-called "oil trains" that routinely roll through their backyards.

On Friday, federal and state authorities participated in a series of inspections at the Port of Albany and its adjacent rail yard, as well as inspections in Albany and Buffalo along rail tracks and in rail cars. Inspectors found oil tank cars with wheel defects and brake shoe defects.

Inspection of two miles of track and 31 switches uncovered 36 defects, including loose rail joints and fasteners, all of which were immediately repaired.  Peter Iwanowicz is executive director of Environmental Advocates: "It is welcome news Governor Cuomo has directed his state agencies which oversee and regulate the state’s rail lines to complete more thorough inspections of what big oil has been doing in terms of oil trains coming through the Capital Region, indeed through all of upstate New York, however, these inspections should be occurring on a regular basis – not just in times of heightened public awareness – big oil has shown callous disregard for the safety and well-being for our communities. We've seen it time and time again in this country that big oil is okay with spilling a lot of their product, spoiling our environment, putting public health at risk.  It's clear from this first round that significantly more resources are needed to protect our communities."

Credit Dave Lucas (WAMC)
Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings with NY US Senator Chuck Schumer on the grounds of the Federal Building in Albany. [July 22, 2013]

Rail safety has been under increased scrutiny following derailments across the U.S. and Canada, including the July disaster in Quebec that killed 47 people. U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer appeared with then-Mayor Jerry Jennings in downtown Albany over the summer, warning the public of the dangers of tank cars carrying crude. Last week, Schumer was in Central New York, saying the speed limits for older models of crude oil tanker cars should be reduced from 50 mph to 40 mph through heavily-populated areas.

Already concerned about quality of life issues associated with oil trains rolling along tracks behind their homes as they battle a proposal to build a crude heating oil facility at the nearby Port of Albany, South End neighbors' fears have escalated following the recent derailments of 13 tank cars carrying crude oil at the Selkirk Rail Yard and a 97-car oil train derailment two weeks ago in a commercial and residential area in the Ulster County town of Ulster.

Former Albany Common Councilman Dom Calsolaro lives in the South End. He says many neighbors do not have computers with internet access, nor do they purchase daily newspapers.   "...so we're looking at a way to create a better line of communications between all of the involved parties. We're still commenting to the DEC on the global partners plan, in fact i just sent them another letter this morning. I did some research and found out that DEC's denial that this is not an environmental justice community is absolutely absurd. There's no way that the South End and Ezra Prentice is not an environmental justice area, and Global Partners needs to redo their environmental impact statement."

A DEC official says it is requiring Global to implement an enhanced public outreach plan consistent with the agency’s Environmental Justice policy.  No final decisions on any permit applications will be made until  completion of this enhanced community involvement process.

Credit WAMC Composite Photo by Dave Lucas

Calsolaro says instead of officials asking for voluntary compliance, he'd like to see tough regulations imposed on oil companies and railroads. Progress is being made, albeit slowly:  CSX officials note that the railroad "shares the great interest and commitment of Senator Schumer, as expressed last week, and the entire railroad industry to railroad safety."

The Selkirk and Ulster derailments underscore concerns in the Village of Ravena, where Mayor John T. Bruno worries about the safety of residents in the Magnolia Terrace housing development, as a second set of tracks is going in to accommodate two-way oil tanker traffic carrying heated crude between Albany and New York City.    "... once this oil is heated, the flashpoint is 97 degrees. You're not too far from something happening where this is going to explode."

A Sierra Club official says taxpayers will foot the bill if there is an explosion, or a major spill on the Hudson River. Albany Common Councilwoman Dorcey Applyrs says she will continue to press for environmental assessments to be conducted.

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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