In the News  Archive

Cuomo, local officials announce progress on crude oil rail transport

December 2, 2014
Denton Publications, Inc

By Pete DeMola

ALBANY — A state report released on Monday says the feds need to pick up the pace on the regulation of crude oil rail shipments.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo called the pace of federal regulatory agencies “unacceptably slow.”

“Over the past six months, our administration has taken swift and decisive action to increase the state’s preparedness and better protect New Yorkers from the possibility of a crude oil disaster,” said Cuomo in a statement. “Now it is time for our federal partners to do the same.”

The status report also slapped the railway biz for what it said was an “unwillingness” to invest in critical equipment that would reduce the volatility of Bakken crude, a chief contributor to the Lac Megantic incident that killed 47 last summer in Quebec.

Last month, New York urged federal authorities to remove DOT-111 cars, a model some say is more prone to rupture, from service or require they be retrofitted to assure safer transport.

A decision is still pending.

The report also cited lobbying efforts by the state to the North Dakota Industrial Commission that would require gas separation prior to making the crude oil available for shipment, a measure that proponents say would reduce volatility.

Fracking has fueled a surge in domestic oil production over the past five years and the use of trains to ship the crude has risen by 4,000 percent, from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to 407,642 in 2013.

Trains are maxed out at 100 cars, with each containing 30,000 gallons of sweet crude.

After entering the country though Rouse’s Point in Clinton County, tankers pass through 10 towns in the Adirondack Park — some on tracks just meters from Lake Champlain — on the way to a refinery at the Port of Albany.

The product is then shipped by rail and water down the Hudson River valley while the empty cars, which still contain fumes and trace amounts of crude, head north on the trek back to North Dakota.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo released a report on Monday detailing the progress the state has made in working to protect communities and the environment from potential risks associated with the rise of crude oil transport. Despite the state’s efforts, said Cuomo, the federal government is lagging. Pictured above are tracks running alongside Lake Champlain in Essex County.

Rail operator Canadian Pacific (CP) declined to discuss the exact volume.

“For security reasons, I’m not in a position to provide the carload details you’re seeking on crude oil on CP’s Rouses Point-Saratoga Springs corridor,” said spokesperson Andy Cummings in an email on Tuesday.

New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) spokesman Beau Duffy said rail companies are not required to report their volume of cargo to the agency.

At a meeting with Essex County officials in March, CP officials said they provide density reports to local emergency responders on an as-requested basis.

Monday’s report is the latest in a string of dispatches following Cuomo’s executive order in January directing state agencies to review prevention and response capacity in the event of spills and explosions.

The reports contain progress updates on 12 state proposals designed to bolster safety, including the hiring of additional railway inspectors and the creation of a database of inspection equipment.

State agencies have started to implement all 12 and have completed five.   Since January, NYSDOT has conducted seven rail “blitzes” this year.

The blitzes focus on tracks, track hardware and mechanical safety equipment, including the mainline from Rouse’s Point to Albany.

So far, state rail inspectors discovered 740 track and equipment defects and 12 hazardous material violations, all of which were immediately corrected by the railroads.

The report also said a “one-stop” web portal providing access to emergency points of contract, training, grants and other emergency preparedness strategies is scheduled to be rolled out by the end of the year.

In addition, the state is continuing to work on finalizing what it calls a “tiered response equipment deployment” that will allow agencies to better coordinate in the event of a mishap.

As part of their recommendations, the state began training local emergency responders and had begun updating spill-response plans.

In October, the Office of Fire Prevention and Control released strategic and tactical guidance for fire department operations during the initial phases of accidents, namely when it comes to increased coordination between multi-agency responses.

Port Henry Fire Department (PHFD) Chief Jim Hughes said his department is focused on evacuation plans. The goal, he said, is to protect lives and property.

In the event of an incident, PHFD will work in conjunction with the Essex County Department of Emergency Services and additional fire departments, local and federal agencies to work on evacuation plans, including ferrying residents and seasonal visitors across Lake Champlain to Vermont.

PHFD is still in the process of nailing down procedures for other mass evacuation events.  Hughes said possible mishaps are highly situational, making it difficult to predict the size and scopes of possible events, spillage or not.

“We try to plan for the worst, hope for the best,” he said. “It’s a very challenging problem that we have facing us and we’re trying to plan accordingly.”

The department, he said, is continually trying to stay up with and maintain their training.
Hughes cited a hazardous materials refresher course just last week.

Battling a possible conflagration would take large quantities of foam, water and manpower.

“We would attempt to cut it off and isolate the best we would,” said Hughes. The strategy would be to contain and control with aid from nearby departments.

As opposed to evacuation, extinguishing severe flames posed another set of issues, namely procurement of the expensive AR-AFFF-type foam needed to stifle the flames: Five gallons costs $189.

“It’s very expensive. To have that readily available, it’s a major undertaking cost-wise.”

PHFD does not have large quantities of AR-AFFF, but plans are places in which other agencies, including the Office of Fire Prevention and Control in Albany and the Clinton County Emergency Services Department, would jump in to assist.

The state is also continuing to assist local agencies with estimates in how much foam and vapor suppression material would be required, said Hughes.

Hughes hailed CP for being proactive. “Any time have questions, they have immediate response.”

The most recent drill with local departments was held in September in Port Henry. It included instruction on shut-offs and braking systems.

Looking north, Cummings, the CP spokesman, said the railway is working through the Clinton County LEPC/EMA to provide Railroad 101 training for new first responders and as a refresher for those previously trained.

Following that training, CP is planning a “tabletop” drill in which CP and local first responders will talk through a hypothetical incident.

No dates have yet been set for this training.

Additionally, CP sent members of the Plattsburgh Fire Department to Pueblo, CO, for crude-by-rail training.

Additional on-water response/boom training is being developed for this area in 2015, said Cummings, which will expand on similar training done in the Albany area in 2014.

The Putnam Fire Department in Washington County also had two members complete the training in Pueblo, Chief Doug Thatcher and Assistant Chief Dan Tucker.

Adirondack Council spokesman John Sheehan said while his organization is pleased at the statewide progress, the Adirondack Park’s leading environmental advocacy organization retains concerns about rail oil transport, including the sustainability of aging infrastructure.

The bridges on track between the Canadian border and Albany have an average age of 100, he said. When it comes to improvements made to railway structures in Clinton, Essex and Washington counties, the crossing over Route 9N in Westport, which was rehabilitated in 1950, is the most recent.

Earlier this year, the state rolled out a Scour-Critical/Flood Prone Bridge Program designed to replace 105 bridges across the state. But none include structures with railways.

Most of the 3,000+ railroad bridges in the state are privately owned, explained NYSDOT’s Duffy, in most cases by the freight rail company that owns the particular corridor where the bridge is located.

Freight rail is federally regulated and federal law requires the owners of railroad bridges to have them inspected once per year and certify that they are safe to carry the loads that travel over them.

Those certifications are required to be filed with the state each year. All bridge owners filed their certifications in 2014.

“New York State’s bridge teams perform visual inspections of rail bridges that cross state highways, looking for problems that could impact traffic below,” said Duffy. “Any issues that are discovered are reported to the bridge owner.”

Looking forward, Sheehan said the Adirondack Council was awaiting a United States Environmental Protection Agency study of the rail line between the Canadian border and Albany, a measure designed to supplement spill response plans with an environmental component.

The Adirondack Council, citing crossings of AuSable, Boquet and Saranac rivers, is also concerned about the effect increased traffic might have on river ecosystems and the lake.

Buckeye Partners has just completed a new terminal in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. The state has granted the Houston-based company a permit to handle billion gallons of the heavy crude annually.

The current volume is about 400,000 million, which means the terminal could more than double its production schedule without any input from the state.

“This could be occurring already,” said Sheehan.

It would take an act of Congress, or a directive from a federal agency, to force transporters to use a different route, he said.
The EPA has not answered whether the Adirondack Park is too ecologically sensitive for traffic, said Sheehan, and has not yet said if its willing to reroute traffic around the Park.

Sen. Charles Schumer said he was pushing the DOT to commit to the strongest of the proposed regulations.

“These outmoded DOT-111 tank cars, which are hauling crude oil across New York State, are ticking time bombs that need to be upgraded ASAP,” said Schumer in a statement. “That is why for two years, since the tragedy at Lac Megantic, I have pushed federal regulators to phase out and retrofit these cars.”

Schumer said as a result of our efforts, the federal Department of Transportation has put a proposal on the table that could start taking these cars off the tracks within two years, as well as restrict the speeds at which these trains operate.

“I am pushing DOT to commit to the strongest of these regulations as soon as possible,” he said. “We can’t afford any delay.”

DEC Commissioner Joe Martens said Cuomo’s Executive Order 125 has given his agency clear direction to review and improve New York State’s preparedness for crude oil spills.

“In the first seven months we have made significant progress implementing the recommendations in the Executive Order report and demonstrating that New York State continues to be the most aggressive state in the nation when it comes to protecting our communities and the environment.”

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