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Albany Activists Keeping Spotlight On Oil Trains Six Years After Lac-Mégantic Disaster

Canadian author Bruce Campbell speaking to an audience in Albany, NY (March 20, 2019)
Daniel W. Van Riper
Canadian author Bruce Campbell speaking to an audience in Albany, NY (March 20, 2019)

A rail disaster in Quebec in 2013 touched off international concern about the safety of so-called "oil trains" that haul crude from oil fields to refineries and ports across North America, including Albany.  A Canadian author and a local activist say that while the media attention has waned, the danger is as great as ever.

In July 2013, a runaway crude oil train from North Dakota  derailed and exploded in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killing 47. Regulators said 72 tanker cars had been misclassified as posing a low risk.

The incident made headlines worldwide and sent officials scrambling to appease public concerns about rail safety. "Oil trains" became a buzzword for activists and politicians, from New York U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer to newly-minted Albany Common Councilor Dorcey Applyrs.

Six years and innumerable pages of legislation later, tankers still pass and park dangerously close to Ezra Prentice Homes, a 179-unit apartment complex in Albany's South End.

Bruce Campbell, author of "The Lac-Mégantic Rail Disaster: Public Betrayal, Justice Denied," spoke Wednesday in Albany at an event sponsored by Save the Pine Bush.    "It was important for me to tell the entire story, because memories can fade. And people forget what happened and why it happened and who was responsible. And so I've encapsulated that in a book, and I don't want it to happen anywhere else. If I can tell that story and it will lead to actions which prevent history from repeating itself, then I think I will have done what I intended to do," said Campbell, who is personally acquainted with many of the Lac-Mégantic residents and blames the tragedy on regulatory failure, negligence and corporate criminality.

"No one has been held accountable. There were three frontline workers that were tried and were acquitted. None of the people that were responsible has been held accountable. So that's where the subtitled 'Justice Denied,' there's so many unanswered questions and there is a need for justice. There's been no public inquiry."

The Canadian Press reported37 of 110 "improved" upgraded oil tankers spilled crude in February in western Manitoba after derailing on farm land.

Although the U.S. government has tightened regulations on oil tankers, Campbell has concerns about Albany.   "Oil by rail is on the rise again. Record volumes of oil by rail exports, certainly from Canada, they're still coming from the Bakken region, fracked oil from Bakken. I don't have the power to stop it, so if I can do anything it's to do what I can to ensure that it happens as safely as possible. They should be looking at ways to bypass major population centers - that has happened in Lac-Mégantic - where the worst rail disaster certainly in Canadian history happened, and it has to be the case in other urban centers as well."

Former Albany Common Councilor and South End activist Dom Calsolaro warns that danger stems from lax regulation.   "There's no oversight. It was the same thing that happened here and it's happening even more now under the Trump administration. You see with the airlines, you know with the 737, they keep taking regulations off, they didn't have enough. The same thing is going on here. We allow the railroads to check the rails themselves, tell us how volatile the fluids are, the gasoline, the oil, the petroleum products they're shipping. In Lac-Mégantic they lied, they had the wrong number on there. It was actually a much more volatile petroleum product than what was listed on the tank cars. We really have to keep up on this."

In January, the U.S. Department of Transportation rescinded a 2015 order regarding the safety of trains that haul volatile materials. Calsolaro worries about city residents who live near the tracks.    "In Albany today, we're not getting the crude oil trains we were getting, but every day we have unit trains of 80 to 120 cars of ethanol going through downtown Albany. And ethanol might be just as bad if not worse than the crude oil. They're brushing it off 'oh it's ethanol, it's OK.' But it's not OK. Who's regulating that? Who's watching the amount of the ethanol we're getting? And again it is coming through downtown Albany, the parks downtown, the trains leaving the empty cars still parked behind Ezra Prentice like they were before."

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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