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Oil train fire drill met with skepticism

Critics argue little can be done in case of accident

Thursday, May 8, 2014
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Firefighters spray fire suppressant foam to douse flames on a tanker truck in a simulated oil-spill fire during a drill Wednesday in Albany.
Firefighters spray fire suppressant foam to douse flames on a tanker truck in a simulated oil-spill fire during a drill Wednesday in Albany.

— While the Cuomo administration steps up firefighter training in preparation for any potential oil train disaster, at least one community group is skeptical the effort will protect residents near rail lines from crude oil explosions and fires.

Albany firefighters Wednesday hosed foam on propane-fueled flames shooting from a tanker rigged as a training prop behind the city’s trash recycling plant, as part of a two-day emergency preparedness exercise.

James Cable of the state Division of Homeland Security said the drill was one of dozens held around the state each year to train for fires involving flammable liquids, including ethanol, gasoline and now crude oil shipped by rail from North Dakota’s Bakken Shale to coastal refineries.

The federal government says nine oil train derailments have occurred in the U.S. and Canada since March of last year. The latest was last week, when a CSX train carrying Bakken crude derailed in Lynchburg, Va., sending three tank cars into a river and shooting flames into the air. No one was injured.

In the past two years, Albany’s port on the Hudson River has become a major hub for rail and barge shipments of Bakken crude. Milelong trains of oil tankers moving through densely populated neighborhoods have raised concerns among residents and local officials. They fear a fiery derailment like the ones seen elsewhere in the past year.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has taken steps to address the danger posed by oil trains, including increasing emergency preparedness training, conducting more inspections of train cars and tracks, and calling for tougher regulations from the federal government.

But some Albany residents observing Wednesday’s drill were skeptical.

“There’s no preparation they can do for an oil train explosion,” Susan Weber of People of Albany United for Safe Energy said. “The only thing they can do is respond after the fact and sweep up the dust from the burned bodies.”

Sandy Steubing, also with the community group, noted that firefighters at Lynchburg, Va., and other derailment sites have let the fire burn itself out after crude oil spilled from derailed tanker cars.

New York Homeland Security Commissioner Jerome Hauer said firefighters have the technology to extinguish such a fire but may choose to let it burn out to keep the oil from polluting waterways or to protect firefighters from the risk of additional explosions.

“This is a very volatile material that we don’t have a lot of experience with,” Hauer said.

 
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