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Sara Foss's Thinking It Through
by Sara Foss

Thinking It Through

A Daily Gazette life blog
Her column and blog rolled into one

Port’s plan for oil gives neighbors PAUSE

The emails I get from my neighborhood association always contain useful and interesting information. They keep me informed about snow emergencies, lost pets and arts events going on in the area.

More recently, these missives have contained updates on a plan to build seven boilers at the Port of Albany to heat crude oil, as well as information on the ever-increasing amount of crude that is already being shipped through the port.

As awareness of the boiler project and the transport of dirty, volatile crude oil through the city has grown, residents have started asking pointed questions about the potential threat to the community’s health and safety. How much damage would an oil train explosion cause to downtown Albany? How many people might be killed? How many residents would be forced to evacuate their homes, possibly forever?

I live about a mile and a half from the Port of Albany, and I’m none too thrilled about what’s going on there.

These trains and their dangerous cargo are awfully close to my house, and a lot of other people’s homes. They travel past playgrounds and schools. Especially concerning, for nearby residents, is the speed with which Albany has been transformed into a hub for crude, and the lack of input and transparency. When I learned about the derailment last July of a freight train in Quebec, carrying crude from North Dakota, I wondered whether something similar could happen at the Port of Albany. That accident killed 47 people and caused widespread damage in the town of Lac-Megantic, destroying more than 30 buildings.

Curious to learn more about the grassroots movement that has sprung up in opposition to the boiler project, I dropped in on the weekly meeting of a new group called PAUSE, People of Albany United for Safe Energy.

Sandy Steubing, the Albany resident facilitating the meeting, said PAUSE has two main goals: stopping the boiler project and learning more about the shipments of oil coming through the Port of Albany.

“What is in the oil?” she asked. “We don’t know, and [the oil companies] won’t tell us.”

She said PAUSE has yet to develop a mission statement, but some members would like to see a moratorium on oil shipments until the risk has been more fully assessed.

And there is clearly a risk. News reports and studies suggest as the amount of crude transported by rail has increased, so have accidents and spills.

Between 1975 and 2012, railroads spilled about 800,000 gallons of crude; last year alone, they spilled more than 1.15 million gallons, according to an analysis of data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration conducted by McClatchy Newspapers.

“Far more toxic products are shipped on trains,” the New York Times reported in a recent article, “Accidents Surge as Oil Industry Takes the Train.” “But those products, like chlorine, are transported in pressurized vessels designed to survive an accident. Crude oil, on the other hand, is shipped in a type of tank car that entered service in 1964 and has been traditionally used for nonflammable hazardous liquids, like liquid fertilizers.”

The PAUSE meeting drew mainly residents of Albany and Rensselaer counties, but the issues being discussed are clearly of regional interest. Two major freight lines, CSX and CP Rail, cut through Schoharie, Montgomery and Schenectady counties on their way to the Port of Albany. If a derailment were to occur anywhere in the Capital Region, it would cause huge problems.

The outcry over the boiler project from PAUSE and politicians representing the neighborhoods most likely to be affected has already seen results. Late last month, Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order directing several state agencies to conduct a review of safety procedures and emergency response preparedness related to shipments of crude oil. And Wednesday, the state Department of Environmental Conservation is hosting a public information meeting to discuss the proposal to build seven boilers at the Port of Albany, which would require an air permit modification.

These boilers would warm oil at the port to make it easier to pump into tanker ships on the Hudson River. This has raised concerns Albany will soon be a destination for crude from the tar sands of western Canada, oil that is thicker and dirtier than other types. Staff from the company seeking to build the boilers, Massachusetts-based Global Cos., plan to attend this week’s public information meeting and answer questions.

Some might argue opposing the boiler project is a form of NIMBY-ism, since the oil is being produced and needs to be moved to refineries. But I don’t know anyone who would be comfortable having rail cars filled with an explosive substance rolling through their neighborhood, or who would like the idea of warming crude oil in what is essentially their backyard.

To me, it seems perfectly normal to object to these things, and I’m pleased to see residents, environmental groups and others are raising a fuss. It goes without saying it will be a tough fight. But it’s one worth fighting.

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February 9, 2014
12:16 p.m.

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Thank you for this informative column. Please keep on investigating.

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