Several New York state agencies are under orders to review crude oil transport and the ability to respond to fiery disasters like those seen on railways in North Dakota and Canada last year.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced an executive order Wednesday calling for an “extensive assessment” of the state’s policies on rail and barge transport of petroleum products.
Cuomo also announced that several state officials sent a letter to the federal government demanding “immediate actions” to protect the state from the perils of hazardous materials accidents.
The announcement was seen as good news by Riverkeeper, an environmental organization working to protect the Hudson River, but a representative said more must be done.
Cuomo’s order comes in the wake of a massive railway explosion Dec. 30 in North Dakota, the source of the multiple tanker trains of crude oil being delivered through the state to the Port of Albany each day.
The North Dakota disaster followed a train derailment disaster in Lac Megantic, Quebec, that killed 47 people and torched a town in July.
“The safety of our communities, our residents and our natural resources must be the highest priority, and we cannot afford to wait for a catastrophic accident to assess and reform the way this crude oil is transported through our state,” Cuomo said in a news release. “New York state is taking swift and decisive action to ensure its readiness for potential disasters.”
There was no North Dakota crude oil headed to the Port of Albany four years ago. Now, roughly 120 carloads travel from there daily, according to the governor’s office.
The executive order was directed towards the state departments of Environmental Conservation, Health and Transportation, the division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.
All of them are asked to issue a report detailing “the state’s existing capacity to prevent and respond to accidents involving the shipment of crude oil by rail, ship and barge.”
The research will also delve into the role local governments play in responding to such emergencies and explore whether statute or regulation changes are needed to increase safety.
Cuomo also announced that several state department heads issued a letter to the federal secretaries of Transportation, Energy and Homeland Security and to the U.S. Coast Guard.
In the letter, the state is asking for tanker car design changes to lessen the risk of hazardous materials leaks; the quick removal from service of tanker cars that can’t be retrofitted with safety gear; and a review of the routes trains are taking “to ensure they are the most appropriate.”
Crude oil being drawn from the Bakken Formation that stretches underground from North Dakota to Canada ignites more quickly than other crude oils do. That inherent volatility, according to the governor’s office, demands “enhanced protections” along the state’s rail lines and waterways.
Riverkeeper’s Hudson River Program director, Phillip Musegaas, said the organization would prefer to see a quick halt to the use of outdated railway tanker cars that can’t survive a derailment without leaking.
“We believe the executive order is a good start, but we would like to see even more urgent action by the state, particularly to address these unsafe tanker cars that are carrying the oil,” he said. “It’s widely accepted now that the majority of these tanker cars that are being used are not designed to carry this dangerous material, and that’s why we are seeing these horrific accidents.”
Riverkeeper is among several organizations closely following the state DEC’s current review of plans to expand a Port of Albany facility.
The DEC recently extended the period for public comment on an expansion request by Global Companies for its Port of Albany site, where the oil is shipped for transport to refineries via the Hudson River.
Musegaas said Riverkeeper expects oil extracted from tar sands and regular crude shipments to be received there as well. These types of oil aren’t as easily ignited as Bakken Formation oil, but represent a greater environmental threat, he said.
Global Companies’ permit request relates to the need to install boilers to warm up tar sand and crude oils so they can be pumped into tanker ships on the river.
“If that material spilled into the Hudson River, it is extremely damaging to the environment and it is almost impossible to clean up,” Musegaas said.
The U.S. Coast Guard is also being asked to establish protocols leading to pre-arranged plans to deal with spills. These would include situating gear along the Hudson River so it’s available immediately to respond to a spill.
Reports sought by the governor are due by April 30.