As more is learned about the increased transportation of crude oil by train, more residents from outside the City of Albany are taking up the cause to make the trips safer, or stop them altogether.
An informational meeting and panel discussion was held Friday, May 9, at the Bethlehem Public Library for area residents to learn more about the proximity of the oil being transported and stored, and how to transition to the use of renewable energy. The event was sponsored by Bethlehem Neighbors for Peace, in conjunction with the newly formed People of Albany United for Safe Energy.
Sandy Steubing, a founding member of PAUSE and author, said the rate at which the transportation of crude oil has increased is alarming.
According to the American Association of Railroads, transportation of crude oil has increased from 9,500 cars in 2008 to 407,642 in 2013. Steubing said the number of spills have jumped from one in 2009 to 137 last year. One of the main reasons for the increase of train transportation of oil is the lack of pipelines to move the oil.
“I don’t know anything that grows at a rate such as this, but crude oil does,” said Steubing.
The discussion panel consisted of Steubing, Albany Common Council member Vivian Kornegay and retired CSX maintenance worker and union leader Jon Flanders. Each spoke about different aspects of the oil’s journey through the region.
About 30 people attended the meeting, with many asking questions throughout the night.
Kornegay said she is upset because she feels Global Partners LP, which operates a rail yard at the Port of Albany that helps transport large amounts of crude oil, is not being a good neighbor.
“They don’t talk to us. They send us to their PR person,” she said. “Well, I don’t have a PR person, just me.”
The councilwoman said she is concerned about where the oil is stored in cars near the port, and about the people who live close to the rail yard. She said if there were a derailment, the lives of those residents could be in danger.
“It scares me,” she said. “Some people say, ‘Why don’t they just move?’ That to me is just ridiculous.”
Steubing said the same goes for those who live by the Selkirk Rail Yard or anyone who lives by train tracks. She claimed anyone who lives within 850 feet of a derailment explosion from crude oil would at least be injured. Those within 200 feet would likely die.
Flanders said although the issue is serious, this is an opportunity for rail workers to get their concerns addressed. He said the main issues are inadequate infrastructure, worker fatigue and train speed.
“A lot of emphasis has been placed on the type of cars the oil is being transported in,” Flanders said. “Well, I’m not convinced at 50 mph any car with dangerous materials will be OK if it goes off the rails. If it goes off the rails, it will blow up.”
Flanders said he believes one of the biggest issues is fatigue of workers, who may then cut corners. He said airline pilots are restricted to flying only 100 hours a month, whereas conductors are cut off at about 430 hours. He also said only one person is mandated to be on each engine, and many union workers are advocating for two so they can take breaks during transport.
Infrastructure is also an issue, with some bridges and tunnels being nearly 100 years old.
“The industry says they’re spending billions of dollars to make upgrades, and they are, but more is needed,” said Flanders. “These are issues that are important not just for rail workers, but for everyone.”
Steubing said to stop the “bomb trains,” people need to advocate for renewable energy. She did not feel the increase in trains meant people should be advocating for the construction of more pipelines. Many in the audience agreed.
“I think we should leave the oil and the gas in the ground where it is and focus our efforts of correcting climate change,” Steubing said.
Kornegay said transporting oil through Albany also doesn’t help bring jobs to the area.
“There are 15 employees at Global and little opportunity for growth,” she said. “We have 100 percent of the risk and 2 percent of the benefits.”
In March, the Town of Bethlehem asked emergency personnel to review their plans if such an emergency were to take place in the town.
At the end of February, 13 tank cars derailed at the Selkirk Rail Yard, but the cars remained upright and no crude oil was spilled. There were also no reported injuries. CSX was fined $10,000 by the state following the Selkirk derailment and another that occurred in Kingston for failing to notify the Department of Transportation of the accidents fast enough.
Albany County Executive Dan McCoy signed an executive order in March that places a moratorium on the amount of crude oil processed at the Port of Albany.
Included in the executive order was a measure that would review the county’s emergency preparedness plans. The county also plans to examine the health risks of processing crude oil at the level that was proposed by Global Partners if they were to expand at the port.
Global Partners responded by threatening a lawsuit over the moratorium.