Local community groups and elected officials are calling on state officials to reject a Waltham, Mass., company’s plan to heat crude oil at its Albany terminal, as Port of Albany neighbors grow increasingly concerned over potential explosions and spills.
Hundreds of residents and officials packed an auditorium Wednesday evening at Giffen Memorial Elementary School for a public information meeting regarding the proposed changes at the port. Many of those who spoke cited concern over a lack of information about the proposal and expressed fear that events such as the recent and sometimes fatal explosions, derailments and spills of crude oil in Canada and North Dakota could happen here in the Capital Region.
“We are very nervous about this crude oil mixture coming into our neighborhood,” Albany County Legislator Lucille McKnight said during the public comment period. “It is a scary thing and the people in our city are saying how scared they are to be living next to these tankers sitting behind their homes or just 20 feet away. What do we do to calm these people?”
The outcry stems from a proposal by Global Companies, LLC, one of the largest wholesalers of petroleum products in the region, to heat the petroleum products that come into and go out of its terminal by ship, barge, truck and rail. Tom Keefe, the company’s director of environmental health and safety, compared this product to viscous bacon fat at Wednesday’s public meeting.
“If you heat the oil slightly to a warmer temperature, it becomes liquid and will flow,” he said. “There are many different grades of crude oil with different characteristics. Some grades require we heat them to make handling them more efficient.”
To do that, Global submitted an application for an Air Title V Facility permit modification to the state Department of Environmental Conservation in June 2013. The project would require the installation of seven new boilers at the terminal, reconfiguring the nearby Kenwood Yard rail facility to allow for the offloading of heated petroleum products and converting a tank that currently stores distillate oil to store volatile petroleum products like crude oil, gasoline and ethanol.
The DEC issued a negative declaration for the project in November under the State Environmental Quality Review Act, meaning it determined the action would not have any significant adverse environmental impact. After public concern over the project mounted, the DEC extended a public comment period to April 2 and scheduled Wednesday’s meeting.
“The safety of all New Yorkers is DEC’s highest priority,” said DEC Region 4 Director Gene Kelly. “Many of us have seen or read about the derailments of tank cars carrying crude oil. But it’s important to note that only federal authorities have the exclusive authority to regulate the transport of oil by rail.”
DEC staff was on hand at Wednesday’s meeting to provide more details about the project. In particular, they pointed out that contrary to some public outcry, the proposal would not involve any increase in the amount of crude oil allowed to pass through the facility. It would actually reduce the maximum amount of crude oil allowed to pass by 50 million gallons a year in order to offset an increase of emissions, they said.
Still, local officials questioned whether the ability to heat oil and handle it more efficiently would eventually result in more traffic at the Port of Albany and more business for Global, which purchased its Albany facility from Exxon-Mobil in 2007.
“I’m very concerned about this facility and I’m totally against it,” Albany County Legislator Douglas Bullock said to immediate applause from the crowd. “It doesn’t need to be built in Albany. One of the problems here is we don’t know the content of the material. Crude oil is a big term. How many oil fleets are here now and how many more of these tankers are going to be attracted by this facility? How much more will the traffic increase because of this facility? And can our rail system adequately support this kind of increased traffic? I don’t think so.”
Wednesday’s meeting also brought up old issues. The recent concerns have mostly served to highlight what many have said was a rushed approval by the DEC in 2012 to let Global double its storage and loading capacity for Bakken oil at the port. Much of that oil comes into the port by two rail companies — Canadian Pacific Railroad and CSX — from the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota, Montana and Canada.
The Albany County Legislature issued a recent proclamation in opposition to Global’s latest proposal. County Legislator Chris Higgins pointed out that even if the DEC has no jurisdiction over rail transport of crude oil, it does have jurisdiction over transportation on the Hudson River and should have been more deliberate in its SEQR declaration for that reason alone.
A slew of community groups met on the steps of the elementary school before the 6:30 p.m. public meeting to call on the DEC to rescind its negative declaration and compel Global to prepare a full environmental impact statement.
A spill on the Hudson River would be difficult if not impossible to clean up, since crude oil sinks, said John Lipscomb, boat captain of Riverkeeper, an organization that advocates for the Hudson River and New York City’s drinking water supply.
“The bottom of the river is uneven,” he said. “It has lots of current. Recovery would be virtually impossible. In 2010, there was a spill on the Kalamazoo River. Four years later, they haven’t been able to complete cleanup. In Alberta, there was a leak of heavy crude into a lake and they had to pump the lake dry to remove the oil. We can’t have that happen here. We’ve spent decades now as a state and community trying to complete a cleanup of PCBs from General Electric into the Hudson. We cannot take the risk of a heavy crude oil spill in the Hudson.”
Other groups calling on the DEC to reject Global’s plan include Earthjustice, Environmental Advocates of New York and People of Albany United for Safe Energy.
Last July, a train carrying Bakken crude oil derailed and exploded in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing 47 people and spilling 1.5 million gallons of oil. Riverkeeper distributed a map Wednesday that showed which areas of the port and surrounding neighborhoods would be affected if this kind of derailment occurred along the rail lines through Albany. The city’s Ezra Prentice and Mount Hope neighborhoods would be most affected and an evacuation zone could stretch as far out as the Capitol building and Empire State Plaza, according to the map.
“If any accident were to occur that involved fire or explosion of highly volatile crude oil, this is one of the places that would be at risk,” Earthjustice attorney Chris Amato said on the steps of Giffen Elementary.
In response to the recent concerns, Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order directing several state agencies to perform a review of safety procedures and emergency response preparedness related to rail and water shipments of volatile Bakken oil. They will report to the governor by April 30 with a summary of the state’s existing ability to prevent and respond to accidents involving the shipment of this oil by rail, ship and barge.