CAPITAL REGION -- The number of oil tank cars traveling local railroads appears to be on the rise again, and concerns about their safety are following suit.
U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., on Thursday renewed a call for volatile Bakken crude from North and South Dakota to be treated to reduce its volatility before it is shipped, citing a recent increase in shipment to Northeast refineries.
Schumer has written to both the federal Department of Energy and the Department of Transportation, urging them to require crude oil to be stabilized before it is loaded into rail tankers in the Midwest for shipment.
With world oil prices again on the rise, refineries in the Northeast used about 3.1 million barrels of oil in March, a level not seen since early 2017, according to a U.S. Energy Information Agency report cited by Schumer.
Both the CSX line through the Mohawk Valley and the CP Rail line that comes through the Adirondacks from Montreal to Albany appear to be seeing more oil train traffic than a year ago, though far less than the peak of rail-oil transit in 2014. Firm local statistics, however, at hard to come by.
"We're hearing reports of that," said John Sheehan, spokesman for the Adirondack Council, which has opposed oil trains in the Adirondacks. "We'd love to have Congress declare the Adirondacks an inappropriate place for this sort of traffic. You wouldn't do it in a national park."
The Association of American Railroads reported last week that, nationally, rail oil shipments were up from a year ago in May, reversing a recent, years-long trend. The movement of crude oil by rail went from being almost non-existent in 2010 to a peak of 750,000 tank cars per day in 2014. That number dropped each year since then, according to the association, but is up 3.9 percent so far this year.
The Port of Albany was a major oil destination for Bakken crude between 2014 and 2016, with Albany County officials estimating 85,000 tank cars passed through the port each month. But activity dropped to almost nothing as world oil prices fell last year, and as public opposition grew toward oil trains in downtown and South Albany.
Global Partners, the main terminal company at the port, had applied to the state in 2014 to expand and add an oil-heating facility at the port. In May, the firm withdrew that application, saying it will re-apply in the future for a smaller facility.
Rail freight carrier CSX continues to promote its oil shipment routes, including the line that runs through the Mohawk Valley following the Mohawk River.
"Our 'Water Level Route' between Chicago and Albany has minimal grade and is all double track, allowing CSX to get your crude oil trains from Chicago to the Hudson River, New York Harbor or Philadelphia markets in less than 48 hours," the company states on its website.
CSX has also invested $26 million in its facilities south of Albany to increase its capacity to bring oil into the New York City-northern New Jersey area. Crude oil shipments are passing through the Selkirk rail yard, even if they no longer come into downtown Albany.
Montgomery County Emergency Management Director Jeffrey Smith said he and emergency responders are aware of trains carrying crude oil through the county, but CSX doesn't notify him of their frequency, and he noted that far more hazardous cargo than crude oil also routinely passes through by rail.
"We've got a spill response trailer that EnCon gave us, and we're certainly better prepared than we used to be, but we could always be better," Smith said.
Schumer said the risks are demonstrated by the Lac Megantic explosion in Quebec in July 2013 that killed 47 people. There have been several explosive derailments in the United States since then, though none involved fatalities.
“Every day across upstate New York, oil rail cars laden with Bakken crude pass through backyards and by schools and homes and near places of business, putting communities in upstate New York at risk if tank cars derail or puncture," Schumer said in a prepared statement. "It is clear to me that we need an all-of-the-above approach to safety, so I am urging the federal Department of Transportation and the Department of Energy to finally publish and finalize standards that will stabilize highly explosive crude oil before shipping it through upstate New York."
Sheehan said the Adirondack Council would be glad if some action were taken on Schumer's request.
"We'd love to see stronger action," he said. "It's the equivalent of a rolling pipeline coming through the park. We were happy to see traffic wane, but prices fluctuate, and it is inevitable that it will come back."