Simple questions demand serious answers on oil transport issue

Sometimes grownups just don’t get it. While it’s an advantage to have a sense of history when judgin

Sometimes grownups just don’t get it.

While it’s an advantage to have a sense of history when judging events, that set of prejudices can often filter common sense out of the equation.

We all know the story of “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” when it took a child to say out loud that the ruler wasn’t wearing anything. News about young people inventing new products, processes and ideas are often printed with astonishment that such a young human could have such a fresh way of looking at problems.

With the state our world is in, maybe we need new ways of looking at things, since the people in charge don’t seem to have workable solutions.

When my granddaughter was 9 years old, we had a conversation about the environment, farming, pollution and other serious subjects, and she offered her opinion that everything in nature worked pretty well by itself, and maybe the only thing that didn’t fit on the planet was people.

We all laughed, but that view has stayed in my mind ever since. Most of our problems are indeed caused by people, for reasons of greed, ignorance or even meaning well but doing the wrong thing.

She also combined ideas in creative ways, like her observation that you didn’t have to be a rocket surgeon to see that some things were just wrong. That, too, has become a family phrase, and has served me well ever since.

I recently had a chance to discuss with her (she is now 25) New York’s use of oil trains to transport Bakken crude from North Dakota and possibly tar sands oil from Canada through the port of Albany to barges. These barges then take this volatile cargo down the Hudson River to refineries in New Jersey and north to New Brunswick, Canada.

She was horrified that this dangerous practice put millions of people, all that land and water, and hundreds of towns at risk, for reasons that made no sense. She then asked me who owned the barge companies, an “obviously crazy” leg of the transport of this oil, and I have not been able to find out, though a good investigative reporter should be able to.

Worth asking

This conversation suggested many questions about what railroad workers call “bomb trains,” and what this virtual pipeline is doing running along irreplaceable critical habitat and homes of millions of New Yorkers.

In use are 78,000 or so older DOT-111 oil cars, designed in the 1960s, with safety flaws that are well-known, but still in service, carrying as much as 30,000 gallons of crude oil each.

Called a “holey roller” by Mother Jones, their steel shell is less than a half-inch thick, easily ruptured and overturned, and its head shields prone to puncture by couplers, with valves and fittings on top that may open in a derailment or rollover. They have been dubbed “the Ford Pinto of rail cars,” and if you don’t know that reference, ask your dad.

If the shipments continue, will safety regulations make them safe? Who will enforce them? Can the trains be routed down the non-passenger west side of the Hudson, or on rail lines that avoid Albany altogether? After they reach the refineries, is the oil being shipped overseas or used to secure our own energy independence? Canada will stop crude shipments in these cars by 2017; why aren’t we?

If in 2013 more than 1.15 million gallons of oil was spilled in rail accidents, more than the last 40 years combined, with a shipment increase of 400 percent since 2005, why are we still doing this? If these shipments to the Port of Albany began in late 2011, why are we just now finding out? Was there an environmental impact study, or are these shipments exempt, and why?

How dangerous is a typical barge capacity of about 45 rail cars to the waters of the Hudson if spilled? If this crude and tar sands oil is so dangerous and difficult to clean up, what on Earth are we doing putting it on our major waterway?

If one barge with a 12 million-gallon cargo, about the size of the Exxon Valdez spill, were to run aground, how would that be cleaned up? Do we want to risk the billions of dollars invested in environment, history and tourism in the Hudson Valley for the short-term profits of oil companies? Do we really think they will clean it up?

These questions and many others need to be answered, and it doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to see that a moratorium or outright ban on crude oil transport in New York state is probably a good idea.

Karen Cookson lives in Sharon Springs and is a regular contributor to the Gazette Opinion page.

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