People from the low-income neighborhoods bordering the Port of Albany aren’t the only ones worried about the volume of volatile crude oil passing daily through the port.
At least one oil train a day is arriving on Canadian Pacific tracks that come through the Champlain Valley, often passing just yards from the shore of Lake Champlain. Communities like Willsboro and Port Henry, while on the plains east of the great mountains, are within the Adirondack Park.
Adirondack environmental groups say about 3.4 million gallons of Bakken crude passes between Montreal and Albany daily, and that concerns them. More than 120 people turned out Thursday night for a public forum on the trains in Plattsburgh.
There’s concern — in both Albany and the Adirondacks — that an expansion proposed by oil processer Global Partners at the Port of Albany will lead to more trains and to different kinds of oil being shipped. The worried think the rails will eventually carry oil from the tar sands of central Canada — a likely alternative if the controversial Keystone pipeline for Alberta crude is blocked by opponents.
Thanks to environmental opposition to new pipelines, rail has become the go-to way to ship crude oil from the newly developed oil fields of the Dakotas and Canada to East Coast refineries. Railroads carried more than 400,000 carloads of crude in 2013, up from just 9,500 carloads only five years earlier, according to the Association of American Railroads.
The association, which represents the railroad industry, said the oil can be moved safely. There’s been a top-to-bottom safety review in light of the amount of oil being hauled, it says, as well as new federal regulations railroad must comply with.
“Freight railroads move each oil train under rules as rigorous as those required for more hazardous materials,” the association website says.
Seemingly overnight, Albany has become a major oil transfer hub, with long trains hauling crude arriving daily. Long lines of black tankers park under Interstate 787, a quarter-mile from the Capitol.
At the Port of Albany, the oil is stored in giant tanks until being reloaded for river or rail shipment to refineries. Global Partners wants to be able to move more of it.
“If the Global Partners’ expansion is approved, it could lead to a major increase in oil train traffic through the Champlain Valley,” said Lori Fisher, executive director of the Lake Champlain Committee. “The new traffic would be carrying tar sands from Canada, in addition to the Bakken crude oil already coming from North Dakota, and put our communities and waterways at even greater risk.”
It’s Bakken crude, “light” and full of natural gases, that’s been responsible for several derailment conflagrations, including last year’s runaway wreck in rural Quebec that killed 47 people in a small town.
So Bakken crude poses one kind of major risk. But oil transportation opponents note the tar sands oils are “heavy” in their crude form, meaning they pose a different risk — they’ll sink in water and be difficult to clean up after a spill.
The Montreal-to-Albany rails run along Lake Champlain for about 130 miles, crossing the mouths of the Saranac, Ausable and Bouquet rivers. A spill in any of the rivers would also contaminate the lake.
The train traffic subsequently passes through Saratoga and Schenectady counties, entering the busy east-west Mohawk Valley rail system before arriving in Albany. A lot of the Bakken crude also travels along the Buffalo-to-Albany corridor, sometimes within yards of the Mohawk River.
The Adirondack Council, Adirondack Mountain Club and others are saying the state Department of Environmental Conservation should consider the impact on Lake Champlain and the Adirondack Park as they consider Global Partners’ proposal. But it should be noted there’s somewhere between little and nothing the state can do about the rail traffic. Unambiguously, railroads are engaged in interstate commerce and regulated by the federal government.
The plans are being reviewed at DEC regional headquarters in Rotterdam., and the DEC is taking public comment on the Global Partners application through Sept. 30, having extended the deadline from early August because of the level of public interest. Comments can be submitted by email to DEP.R4@dec.ny.gov or by traditional mail to William Clarke, DEC Region 4, 1130 North Westcott Road, Schenectady, NY 12306.