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Oil Trains Under Political Microscope


There have been several developments this week impacting oil trains, the subject of national and local debate.

The U.S. Department of Transportation on Wednesday issued new proposed rules on tankers transporting oil including quickly phasing out the use of old DOT-111 rail cars for moving crude oil and other hazardous liquids. The rules would include new operational requirements to lower operating speeds and enhance braking capabilities for high-hazard flammable trains. 

New York U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer has been on the case and on the road stumping for such a phase-out.   "This is very good news. The DOT regulations are just what the doctor ordered"

Schumer and Congressman Paul Tonko of the 20th district have been calling for increased safety regulations.  Tonko met with administration officials, including Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, urging them to expedite these new standards and phase out older, less-sturdy rail tank cars.   "They're looking at, I think, 1232's, I think that's the replacement model. I have written to the department of transportation to the secretary, Secretary [Anthony] Fox, with whom I've met twice face to face about this issue. And we're hoping that they'll review the situation, push for fair transport, great training for workforce, front-line workers who are emergency response teams and health care workers."

Riverkeeper Hudson River Program staff attorney Sean Dixon calls the proposed rules weak and "not immediate enough."  He adds "These are bomb trains that are moving up and down the Hudson River and throughout the country. Small tweaks in regulatory programs that by and large are already being implemented by the industry will not go far enough, won't cut it."

Meanwhile, frequent oil train critic Albany County Executive Dan McCoy has unveiled legislation that would impose civil and criminal sanctions for railroad operators who fail to report oil spills to Albany County within 30 minutes.

Crude-carrying trains often park on rails that abut the Ezra Prentice Homes, a city-run housing project. Speaking on that property, McCoy warned it's not a matter of if an oil spill will happen, but when. He added people living in the South End neighborhood should NOT have to live in fear.    "The people that live down there in Albany housing, 80 percent of them are minorities. They don't choose to live there, they can't pack up and move away.  So I also called on Albany Housing to look at relocating their apartments. Close them down, and let these people live in an area where they can have a quality of life."

McCoy's remarks apparently caught Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan by surprise: the Times Union reports Sheehan dashed off a letter to McCoy, requesting “all the facts and reports that resulted in your conclusion that the residents of Ezra Prentice are in immediate and imminent danger.”   Sheehan's office has not returned calls for comment. 

The newspaper says McCoy responded by letter - quoting - " I have seen the fear in their eyes. I have inhaled the oil fumes that on a daily basis engulf children on the playground. I have heard the complaints of sick and elderly residents and their pleas for help. So forgive me if this experience has stirred a compulsion to act swiftly."

Councilwoman Dorcey Applyrs told the paper it’s not clear that all or even most Ezra Prentice residents want to leave, even if they could.

McCoy says Peter Iwanowicz, chair of the County Executive’s Expert Advisory Committee on Crude Oil Safety, is compiling a list of recommendations for action so that residents of the area near the port, emergency responders and the public can fully understand the environmental and health risks associated with the exponential growth of the shipment of crude oil through Albany County.    "Among the recommendations that Peter is going to be making is air pollution monitoring, hire a firm look at all that, to also looking at the drinking water supply.  Waste water, infrastructure that could be impacted - these are different things that Peter is going to be looking at with a group of experts that are gonna help us protect the people."

Congressman Tonko thinks the oil debate begs a bigger question.    "Where are we going with our energy policy and why are we still so gluttonously dependent upon fossil-based fuels like Baaken Crude."

According to the Association of American Railroads, nationwide oil shipments have increased from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to an estimated 400,000 carloads in 2013. Terminals at the Port of Albany are gearing up to increase their capacity to handle 2.8 billion gallons of oil per year.

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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