Just prior to Christmas 2012, the Capital District received a huge environmental gift and an alarming wakeup call: A tanker loaded with Bakken shale oil ran aground in the Hudson River just south of Albany.
Because of laws enacted following the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989, this tanker was doubled-hulled, and thus there was no spillage into the river. Since then we have learned about the many dangers associated with the transport of this volatile fuel around the United States, and especially through the Capital District, with the Port of Albany being a final destination.
Without the concurrence of residents or their elected officials and without an Environmental Impact Statement to define and evaluate the risks, the Port of Albany has been turned into the upstate equivalent of Port Arthur, Texas.
The responsible agencies in the federal government have yet to take any definitive action to prevent future risks. This inaction comes despite the incineration of 47 people and part of their town, LacMagantic, in Quebec; multiple derailments and subsequent explosions of the volatile crude oil in North Dakota, Alabama, Arkansas and, most recently, Virginia; the known deficiencies in DOT-111 tank railcars; and the spillage of more than 3 million gallons of crude in the past year.
The only definitive action was taken by the Albany County executive to stop the addition of seven boilers at the crude oil processing plant at the Port of Albany pending a health and safety review.
Based upon a review of the Keystone XL Project’s Supplementary Environmental Impact Statement data, which deals with both Bakken shale oil and diluted bitumen made from Canadian tar sands, and an engineering review of the characteristics of high-strength structural steel at elevated temperatures, I’ll provide some insight into the potential disaster which could befall Albany, Schenectady or other communities through which the railroad tracks run.
Bakken shale crude is lighter than water and is free-flowing down to a temperature of about minus-25 degrees, known as the pour point, About 40 percent of it is made up of volatile natural gas condensates such as butanes, pentanes, octanes and others. Thus, the need for boilers to heat Bakken shale oil within the defective DOT-111 tank railcars is puzzling.
To heat diluted bitumen is more understandable, since bitumen is heavier than water and ceases to be free flowing at 50 degrees. Thus large volumes (up to 30 percent) of volatile naphtha or natural gas condensates are mixed with the bitumen, reducing the viscosity and pour point to facilitate pumping.
This accounts for the high volatility of both Bakken shale oil and diluted bitumen. But it also means that by heating either crude in the railroad tank cars, as intended, it will vaporize some of the volatile components. Those include toxic pollutants and greenhouse gases and constitute an ever-increasing explosive mixture.
The consequences of an explosion in Albany, Schenectady or any other city in the upstate area would be much worse than Quebec because of the increased population density and surrounding highway infrastructure.
If any heating is foolishly utilized, monitoring for combustible vapors and radon should be employed extensively, with special spill-cleanup and oil-fire extinguishing systems in “hot” standby.
The possible consequences of an expected explosion of tank tailcars — parking or heating these tank railcars in close proximity to Interstate 787 or the Dunn Memorial Bridge highway infrastructure — is an invitation to a disaster.
The theoretical flame temperature of fuels such as Bakken crude is above 2,000 degrees. Many highway and bridge structures supported by steel will be failing prior to reaching this temperature.
Thus, when these tank railcars explode and burn in close proximity to the highway infrastructures, a disaster reminiscent of the World Trade Center could evolve in downtown Albany.
People living in cities, towns and villages near where the tracks run are just as subject to being burned to death as the victims at LacMagantic.
What are the possible consequences of an inferno in downtown Schenectady if these incendiary bombs called tank railcars explode?
Thomas J. Donohue is a professional engineer from Niskayuna. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.