In one of the biggest protests of its kind Albany has ever seen, about 1,500 people from across the Northeast and beyond converged Saturday to protest the city’s oil train traffic.
Hundreds were willing to potentially risk arrest by blocking the railroad tracks that lead into the Port of Albany, though no arrests were reported there by Saturday evening. Five arrests took place at a Guilderland railroad bridge where protestors stopped a train.
The protestors’ message: They’re angry about what they say are dangerous oil trains coming to the port, which in recent years has become a major shipping destination for oil extracted in North Dakota.
The turnout impressed long-time activists.
“I think a lot of people really care about climate change,” said Lynne Jackson, a long-time Albany environmental activist. “You can see it right here in Albany, how the winters are changing.”
The Bakken crude they carry is more explosive than most oils, and has burned in a number of tanker derailments in recent years, leading protestors to label them “bomb trains.”
Some opponents argue that the oil traffic supports an industry they hold responsible for global warming, while others highlighted environmental justice concerns: the trains are often parked just a few feet from the Ezra Prentice low-income apartments in Albany’s South End.
“We assume 100 percent of the risk and get minimal benefit,” said Albany Second Ward Councilwoman Vivian Kornegay, whose ward includes the port.
The mass protest in Albany was part of a series of events around the world called “Break Free,” all urging that nations break from reliance on fossil fuels. There were 23 events in 12 nations on six continents, organizers said.
“Keep fossil fuels in the ground,” said the Rev. Marc Johnson of Albany, stating the “Break Free” movement’s rallying cry.
Albany was the Northeast regional focal point, drawing people from New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. A few people said they came from the Midwest.
“The Bakken oil is crazy from start to finish,” said Bill Kitchen, 63, of Johnstown, who has also protested the oil and gas industry at Seneca Lake. “It’s terrible what it’s doing to the South End of Albany.”
The Port of Albany’s rails had been cleared of all rail traffic prior to the well-publicized protest, so those who sat on the Canadian Pacific Railway rails weren’t blocking a train. The area they occupied was fenced off, but the entire rail yard was deserted.
Police observed patiently while a series of speakers spoke again the oil trains, and musicians performed anti-fossil fuel songs.
While the main event was quiet, five people were arrested Saturday afternoon after blocking an oil train from crossing a bridge over the Watervliet Reservoir in Guilderland. Two women hung from climbing ropes stretched across the tracks in such a way that they would fall if the train passed over and severed the rope.
“The global climate system, on which every human life depends, is no longer stable because our governments have utterly failed us. So now, for survival, we will act on climate ourselves,” said Marissa Shea, one of those arrested. Her statement was released by organizers of the event.
Global Partners of Waltham, Massachusetts, which stores oil at the port and is one of the primary companies shipping oil through Albany, issued a statement saying: “We respect people’s rights to make their voices heard.”
The company said it worked with state police, Albany city police and the Albany County Sheriff’s Department to ensure the protest would take place safely.
“In the last three years, we’ve been inspected more than 270 times, resulting in a handful of minor infractions that were promptly corrected,” the statement from Global Partners CEO Mark Romaine said. “It’s clear we take our jobs, and our responsibility to the community, to safety, and to the environment very seriously.”
Oil train traffic into the port surged as the Bakken fields were expanding in 2013-2014, but anecdotal evidence indicates the traffic dropped in 2015 and has so far this year, as the oil price slump has affected production in the Bakken fields.
Protest organizers acknowledge that.
“They’ve diminished a bit, but not enough to diminish the problem or diminish people’s fears,” Kornegay said.
The protesters rallied in the morning in Lincoln Park, not far from the state Capital and Governor’s Mansion. With horse-mounted police leading the way, the marchers extended nearly a half-mile, with groups splitting up to go directly to the port and to visit the Ezra Prentice apartments.
There, speakers talked about high asthma rates among children growing up near the tracks and other issues.
“We’re going to break free from this environmental racism,” said Carolyn McLaughlin, president of the Albany City Council. “The black wall of environmental justice does not belong here in the South End of Albany.”
Saturday’s protest came after activists on Friday night symbolically blocked the Hudson to oil barges, stretching a line of kayaks across the river.
Reach Gazette reporter Stephen Williams at 395-3086, [email protected] or @gazettesteve on Twitter.