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Oil Trains, Sick People: Advocates Write DEC

WAMC composite image by Dave Lucas

Even after recent tests came back negative, a coalition of environmental groups says oil trains are making people in Albany sick — and they're asking state regulators to investigate.

In the spring, government officials and residents of Albany's South End neighborhoods expressed concern about potential impacts related to crude oil transport and facilities in the area.

People living near the Port of Albany and the rail lines carrying the oil trains say they experienced health problems they believe to be associated with oil and diesel emissions.

In response, the Department of Environmental Conservation deployed an air sampling plan to screen for specific pollutants in the community.

The plan found favor from Albany County Executive Dan McCoy, who had issued a March 12th moratorium on the expansion of the processing of crude oil at the Port of Albany and even floated the idea of relocating residents.  "We need to test for certain things that these crude oils these DOT 111's when they're venting them after they offload them onto the ships or onto the holding area down at the port, what emissions are going into the air?"

DEC sampled South End neighborhood air on five occasions, an hour at a time, whenever the agency was notified that someone detected a petroleum odor. Strategically placed samplers found "no unusual results." That didn't sit well with neighborhood residents, like Dom Calsolaro, a former Common Council member.   "The Department of Environmental Conservation is expanding their study in the Peace Bridge neighborhood of Buffalo to so a full year air quality study even though the results are similar to the results we received from the DEC about the South End air quality."

Calsolaro doesn't believe his neighbors should settle for anything less.  The Sierra Club, Environmental Advocates of New York and Earthjustice share that belief: the environmental groups sent a letter Friday to the DEC, asking for a "comprehensive" review of the impact oil trains have on surrounding air quality.

Peter Iwanowicz, executive director of Environmental Advocates of New York crafted the letter.   "Our perspective really is, what's good for people in Buffalo should be good for people in Albany, and indeed anywhere in New York State, and the state should be conducting a more robust, year-long assessment of air quality in Albany where oil trains are frequenting now, to determine, much like they're doing in Buffalo whether truly the air is safe to breathe or not."

DEC officials responded to a request for comment by email, quoting here "DEC already has a permanent monitor for particulate matter on Green Street in South Albany.  It has also expanded monitoring for two pollutants beyond particulate matter in the South Albany at the request of the community."  Iwanowicz brands the DEC "unresponsive" to the issues the community has raised.    "Their position thus far has been that this is a federal issue, there's nothing the state can do about it. We disagree."

Calsolaro says his neighbors remain concerned, vigilant and unified.   "We're meeting tonight again. Planning strategy of what our next steps are."

Iwanowicz says the locals aren't the only ones who sense something in the air.   "Whenever I've been down at Ezra Prentice Homes or anywhere else near the port, and when my family drives by on 787, my kids notice the petroleum smell and keep asking me, 'What are we doing about it?'"

In the agency's email response to WAMC, DEC stated "no additional monitoring of those pollutants is needed at this time. However, it will consider requests for additional monitoring directed at odors. "

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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