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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
 

Oil by rail remains worrisome

By Sara Foss
Monday, March 3, 2014

Last month I wrote a column about the local effort to bring the transport of crude oil by rail to the Port of Albany to a halt.
In the course of my research, I learned about the derailment last July of a freight train in Quebec that killed 47 people and severely damaged the town of Lac-Megantic. I learned about less serious accidents, such as a November incident in which 20 train cars derailed and exploded, sending flames shooting hundreds of feet into the air. I learned that in 2013 more crude oil was spilled in U.S. rail accidents than in the nearly four decades since the federal government began collecting data on spills.
These facts and anecdotes were worrisome. But they didn’t stop me from wondering about the odds of a train derailment. While driving on Interstate 787, I glanced at the oil-bearing trains, which often come to a standstill in Albany, and contemplated what might happen if they exploded. What was the likelihood of that actually happening?
I still don’t know the answer to this question.
That is, I couldn’t give you a percentage.
But I can tell you this: On Friday, 13 tank cars carrying crude oil derailed at the CSX rail yard in Selkirk, and though there were no spills or injuries, it doesn’t take a huge leap of the imagination to imagine a more deleterious outcome. Also last week, a CSX engine and one train car derailed in the town of Ulster, near Catskill Park. And in mid-February, thousands of gallons of heavy crude oil were spilled when a train crashed into an industrial building and derailed.
So it’s not as if an oil train derailment is a far-fetched scenario.
In fact, such derailments appear to occur with alarming frequency.
What’s amazing is that the derailments I mentioned come at a time when the transport of crude oil by rail is under heavy scrutiny, as government officials scramble to respond to the concerns of residents and activists who are rightly worried about the trains’ safety.
I don’t know about you, but when I know that more attention is being paid to my work, I try extra hard not to screw up. If the best we can expect from the oil and rail industries when they’re under increased pressure is multiple derailments, well, that’s pretty sad. And it suggests that federal and state governments have failed to do their due diligence, and ensure that transporting crude oil by train doesn’t compromise the health and safety of entire communities.
In response to the uproar over the oil trains, state and federal authorities launched an “inspection blitz” of oil trains and rail yards in Albany and Buffalo last week.
At the Kenwood Yard near the Port of Albany, inspectors examined two miles of track and 31 switches and found 36 defects, including loose rail joints, fasteners and a broken joint bar, all of which were immediately repaired, according to a press release put out by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The inspectors also looked at 120 tank cars, and found three defective wheels and three defective brakes shoes.
I was happy to hear about the inspection blitz, but also curious.
Why weren’t regulators performing such inspections before — like, when it became clear that Albany was transforming into a major hub for the transport of crude oil extracted from North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields via the controversial practice known as fracking?
Unsurprisingly, environmental groups are wondering the same thing.
In a statement, Peter Iwanowicz, executive director of Environmental Advocates of New York, described the inspection blitz as “welcome news,” but also said that it wasn’t enough. . . . “These inspections should be occurring on a regular basis — not just in times of growing public concern — and always released to the public,” he said. “We know the DEC is far too understaffed to properly enforce many protections, and the [Department of Transportation] has just five rail inspectors statewide. It is clear from this first round that significantly more resources are needed to protect our communities.”
According to a recent New York Times report, up to 150,000 barrels of Bakken oil currently is being transported through Albany by rail each day.
That’s a lot of oil.
And if it weren’t for the activists, environmentalists and residents raising questions about the safety of the oil trains, we’d know very little about what’s going on.
Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at sfoss@dailygazette.net. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Her blog is at www.dailygazette.com/weblogs/foss.

 
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