Tuesday, May 20, 2014

David Sommerstein: Trains Carry Oil And Risk

Rail accident in Lac Megantic, Quebec in 2013 (Wikimedia photo)On a summer night last July, the charming French-Canadian town of Lac Megantic literally exploded. A tanker train carrying crude oil derailed and caught fire, incinerating much of the downtown and killing forty-seven people.

Other train explosions followed in Alabama and North Dakota. Now people are wondering if it could happen here in the Adirondacks.

Since the disaster in Lac Megantic—located 180 miles northeast of the Adirondack Park, in Quebec—officials in northern New York have taken notice that similar trains, up to a hundred tankers long and filled with eighty-five thousand barrels of oil, roar regularly through the Champlain Valley. Most of the oil is in tankers that federal regulators have deemed unsafe.

Hamlets such as Port Henry, Westport, Whallonsburg, and Crown Point, long familiar with the blare of the locomotive’s horn, have become links in a virtual pipeline on rails between the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota and refineries along the East Coast. Nearly one hundred miles of the track, which is owned by Canadian Pacific Railway Limited, pass through the Adirondack Park.

Driven by new technology, including hydraulic fracturing, oil production is booming in North Dakota and Alberta, Canada. According to the Association of American Railroads, freight trains shipped forty times as many carloads of crude oil last year as in 2008.

“I think it crept up on us,” U.S. Representative Bill Owens said recently. “People didn’t see it coming.”

Moriah Supervisor Tom Scozzafava (Photo by Seth Lang)Longtime Moriah Supervisor Tom Scozzafava has observed more oil-tanker cars rumbling through the village of Port Henry on Lake Champlain. Though he is a train buff, the Lac Megantic derailment forced him to consider the dangers. The tracks pass right next to the town hall and the old depot, which Amtrak uses for passenger trains and which houses the town nutrition program and the senior-citizen center. Campgrounds on the lake’s shoreline might have to be evacuated by boat if a disaster occurred.

“How do you prepare for something like that in a worst-case scenario?” Scozzafava asked. “The only real effort you can make at that point is to have a real evacuation plan.

At a public forum in March, Canadian Pacific officials told the Essex County Board of Supervisors that the company has a comprehensive emergency-response plan in place, as required by federal law. The company wouldn’t share the plan with the public, citing national-security concerns over potential terrorism, but spokesman Ed Greenberg said it covers community safety and evacuation, environmental remediation, and spill cleanup.

Officials in Essex and Clinton counties say they still haven’t seen the plan. Essex County emergency-services coordinator Don Jaquish faulted Canadian Pacific for sharing information only when asked. “They haven’t been proactive,” he said. “We’ve had to extract the information.” Jaquish’s counterpart in Clinton County, Eric Day, says he’s not much concerned because his responders are always preparing for any number of hazardous spills.

“The railroad moves things routinely that are as hazardous, if not more hazardous,” than crude oil—such as ethanol, propane, and volatile chemicals, according to Day. He praised Canadian Pacific for stepped-up maintenance and monitoring of the track.

Port Henry Fire Chief Jim Hughes said Canadian Pacific sent him a summary list of hazardous materials shipped regularly along the line, but it took almost a month to get it.

So far this year, there have been at least two train derailments involving oil tankers in New York State, near Albany and Kingston, although neither resulted in damage or spills. In the North Country, first responders are identifying shelters for residents and making local evacuation maps. Canadian Pacific has promised joint training in the near future.

Environmental groups like the Adirondack Council contend that the whole process needs more transparency. “While there’s a national-security issue, I think it’s very important to remember there’s a very local security issue,” said spokesman John Sheehan.

Canadian Pacific’s tracks parallel the shore of Lake Champlain (Photo by Seth Lang)At stake, Sheehan said, are the safety of thousands of residents and the health of the environment. The tracks cross the Saranac, Ausable, and Boquet rivers. In places, the trains come within a few yards of Lake Champlain, which is a drinking-water source for thousands of people. An oil or chemical spill could also cause major fish and bird kills and pollute wetlands for years.

“An oil-tanker car losing its oil into any of those places would be a tragedy we would never recover from,” Sheehan said. The Adirondack Council is calling on the state Department of Environmental Conservation to require spill-response plans that are specifically tailored to the unique ecosystems and regulations of the Adirondack Park.

A spill would be particularly devastating to fish that spawn in places like Ausable Marsh and Wickham Marsh, according to Mark Malchoff, a Lake Champlain Sea Grant researcher. “Near-shore areas are important habitat for northern pike, yellow perch, bass, and walleye,” he said.

Malchoff noted that twenty-five years after the massive Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, some fish populations still haven’t recovered. He also said there’s little research on what would happen to the lake’s deeper ecosystem. The tracks skirt the western edge of Willsboro Bay, which is more than a hundred feet deep in places.

Canadian Pacific’s Greenberg said the company has participated in “full-scale drills” with local and state officials from New York and Vermont as well as federal environmental and wildlife experts. These have included marine drills on Lake Champlain. “We take emergency preparedness very seriously,” Greenberg said.

Canadian Pacific Rail Line (Map by Nancy Bernstein)The company has an oil-containment boom “strategically located” in case of a spill into the lake, according to Greenberg. But he couldn’t say if the boom is kept along the lake. Greenberg said the railroad’s staff and contractors have trained for the possibility of a spill in winter, when the oil can become trapped under the ice.

Major freight accidents have occurred in the North Country. A huge train derailment on the Champlain Valley line in 1995 sent cars tumbling into the lake just north of Port Henry. “It was during the winter,” Scozzafava recalled. “They broke through the ice. A couple of them are still there to this day.” He said the cargo wasn’t oil or chemicals, but rather grain, concrete, and wooden two-by-fours. “I used some of them to build my shed,” he said.

In 1976, an accident on the St. Lawrence River demonstrated the damage that an oil spill can wreak on the environment. An oil barge ran aground in the Thousand Islands and spilled more than three hundred thousand gallons of crude, devastating the river ecology for a generation. The “Slick of ’76” began raising consciousness about the need for safety upgrades of the nation’s shipping fleet, including building double-hulled ships.

The disaster at Lac Megantic has triggered calls for similar reforms in the railroad industry. At Congress’s urging, the transportation-safety boards of both the United States and Canada issued an unprecedented joint call in January for tougher rail regulations in both countries. In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo has ordered regulators to lower train speed limits in Buffalo and New York City. State inspectors have stepped up inspections of tracks, rail yards, and railcars, finding several dozen defects and violations in March. In the state capital, Albany County Executive Dan McCoy placed a moratorium on plans to expand a major oil-processing facility at the Port of Albany on the Hudson River.

The most intense scrutiny has fallen on the workhorse for hauling crude oil, a tanker known as the DOT-111. Federal inspectors deemed these railcars “inadequate” and “unsafe” as early as the 1990s. They’re single-hulled and prone to puncture, yet industry lobbying and bureaucratic inaction prevented any meaningful reform.

Pressure is mounting to pull the tankers off the tracks. Deborah Herseman, chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said in January that the DOT-111s need to be taken out of service soon. “Once we see a failure of one tank car it starts a pool fire,” Herseman said, “and it spreads to the other tank cars.”

US Senator Charles Schumer (Photo by Paul Buckowski - Courtesy Albany Times Union)U.S. Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, called the DOT-111 “a ticking time bomb” and called on the U.S. Department of Transportation to phase them out.

Even the railroad industry itself has recognized the need for in change, voluntarily agreeing to start replacing DOT-111s with safer models. But it will take years for all the DOT-111s to be retired, and oil companies that own them have been reluctant to retrofit them.

Two oil companies, Tesoro and Irving, have agreed to retrofit their existing stock of DOT-111s by this summer, and Schumer and other federal officials are pressing other companies to follow suit. Canadian Pacific, which owns the rails but not the cars, has tried to press its clients to use safer tankers by charging a $325 per car surcharge on DOT-111s.

As it stands now, DOT-111s still account for about two-thirds of the tankers transporting crude oil in the United States and Canada. These black sausage-shaped tankers will continue to run down the Champlain Valley indefinitely.

“Regulation is the key to averting a disaster,” said Moriah’s Tom Scozzafava.

The question is whether regulators can catch up to an oil-freight boom that no one saw coming.

Photos, from above: Rail accident in Lac Megantic, Quebec in 2013 (Wikimedia photo); Moriah Supervisor Tom Scozzafava (Photo by Seth Lang); Canadian Pacific’s tracks parallel the shore of Lake Champlain (Photo by Seth Lang); Canadian Pacific Rail Line (Map by Nancy Bernstein); and US Senator Charles Schumer (Photo by Paul Buckowski – Courtesy Albany Times Union).

This story originally appeared in the Adirondack Explorer, a nonprofit newsmagazine devoted to the protection and enjoyment of the Adirondack Park. Get a full print or digital subscription here.

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David Sommerstein is a North Country Public Radio reporter, farm and food blogger at The Dirt, and DJ host of The Beat Authority, airing the best grooves from all over the world every Friday, 3 to 5 pm.

18 Responses

  1. Steve Hall says:

    Does the fact that Canadian Pacific owns the line, give them carte blanche for what they transport, and how they transport it? Do they have an easement on the land, or do they actually own the land? Given how much more oil they’re currently transporting, and the likelihood that the volume will continue to increase, what rights do the towns have to prevent the passing through of dangerous cargo? It is very troubling that our officials cite the dangers of not only the cargo, but of the DOT carriers, and yet where is the legal recourse? As we’ve learned since the Prince William Sound spill, all of the promises in the world add up to nothing when the spill comes. Imagine the impact on infrastructure, fishing, boating and wildlife, not to mention tourism?

  2. Tim says:

    A lot of talk and no action. Something needs to be done, NOW. What can we do? I wouldn’t trust the railroad and their so called emergency response plans one iota.
    Canada has mandated a change over to the double walled tanker cars but that’s not for another 3 years.

  3. John Jongen says:

    Residents of the North Country have the most to lose and are the least protected. These crude oil ‘bomb trains’ of DOT-111 tankers are rumbling through all of NY State communities right up to the Albany Capitol steps and the NY DEC headquarters and none of our ‘leaders’ can do anything about it. Oil and gas will consume us all. This page captures some of the excesses of the fossil fuel industry http://www.facebook.com/capp.ny

  4. Paul says:

    My guess is that most local fire departments are in no way prepared or trained or equipped to deal with the type of fire and/or spill that you could have with one of these trains.

    It is going to take time to switch over to safer cars. Even if you mandated the change to take effect now there are not the cars to do it.

    Two things I would do:

    Buy stock in companies that are making these type of RR cars.

    Approve any pipeline projects that keeps oil off the rails.

  5. Charlie S says:

    These sausage-shaped black tanker cars pass near where I live every day and night,north and southbound they move along the tracks.I hear them coming when they’re sometimes ten minutes away. I like trains.I find them interesting,and all of their power when they chug along the tracks impresses me quite much.

    I’m up early in the morning and when I hear them coming I go outside and walk to the tracks and wait for their arrival.A quarter mile away I see their blinding lights suddenly come into view as they make their way around a bend.My child imagination goes to work as I wait for these trains in the dark while the town is fast asleep.I imagine a monster coming to get me and I act accordingly I hide in the dark away from the glare of its lights as it draws near. I count the cars as they pass.They are graffiti laden more often than not though lately I’ve noticed newer cars minus the artwork.These newer cars have a different sound to them also as they pass which I suppose has something to do with their new gearing.There is not the grating creaks and squeals,and sometimes thumps,as in the older cars.

    Though I admire trains and all of their might I appreciate the hush of early dawn moreso.When it comes to power i’ll take the forces of nature over freight trains any day of the week.And if there is even the remotest of possibilities that a train may derail and compromise what took thousands of years for nature to create I say we should not take the chance.

    Over and over we continue to pollute and destroy our eco-systems in the name of profit and/or ignorance.Or both! Prince William Sound will never be the same.The Gulf of Mexico will never be the same.The James River will never be the same……and on and on the list is long of all of the spills into our waterways,which we too soon forget if we even hear about them at all. Yet the oil and gas people still try to convince us their methods are safe.Water and the natural world are not on their list of priorities.
    Matter of fact industries are allowed to discharge their waste into streams and rivers thanks to our leaders who are more or less corporate whores.Run-off and seepage of stored wastes into nearby water sources are also the norm for industries in this country.I suppose when we start getting nothing but a brown gooey mess clumping out from our faucets….maybe then we’ll start thinking differently. I have my doubts about that. That we’ll start thinking differently that is.

  6. Outlier says:

    Let’s go back to burning wood. It’s renewable.

  7. JPGrant says:

    Jimmy Carter, in his 1978 state of the union address, told the country that it’s biggest concern should be energy.
    These tankers are going to market. Markets are driven by demand. Treating symptoms may not cure the disease.

  8. Charlie S says:

    Eventually we’re going to have to change our ways JP.Sure we’re reliant on gas and oil and the conveniences that come with them,but they will run out eventually even if it’s a 100 years from now.We need to learn how to slim down some and waste a lot less.Especially those wimpy mindless people who cannot get in their cars on hot summer days unless they leave it running for extended periods of time to keep it chilly inside,or those wimpy mindless people who cannot get in their cars in the winter unless they leave it running for extended periods of time to keep it warm inside.Heaven forbid we get in a cold car on a winter day,or a hot car on summer days. How about those mindless people who wear shorts on 13 degree days? Surely you’ve seen that up here in the winter.They have heat in their cars…is why they dress likes fools in the winter.

    The dumps are filling up,the lifeblood water is being polluted,species are dying off as we speak….the extraction of fossil fuels and the emitting of fumes from our billion gas-laden cars are adding to this. We don’t need as much as we have and we sure as heck could get by on much less and we’d survive without television and movies and sports and even malls.Comes a catastrophe we’ll learn that. It’s okay to think about today, tomorrow,next week and even next month,but we also need to start thinking long term….like 50 years from now,a 100 years.Our short-term thinking is where the problem lies.Ignorance is where the problem lies also.

    If the oil and gas people stepped up to the podium and told us tomorrow that we’ll be spent of oil and gas in just three years you can bet we’d start thinking about,and coming up with,alternative ways to sustain our material way of living….even if we have to cut down on materials. Survival instinct is in us and when the poop hits the fan we’ll start thinking differently.Meanwhile the earth is falling apart all around us.

    There’s just no way we can go on the way we’ve been going forever.Things are getting dire environmentally all over the world….. and then you have corporate puppets convincing us (some of us) that we need to keep up the pace,drill here drill there,spoil the last remaining pristine places on this planet just so that we can continue leading our shallow lives…..while they get rich.Nothing is sacred to them!They don’t care if a train derails and their tanker cars spill a million gallons of crude oil into the Hudson River or Lake Champlain.They may care some but their profits are their major concern.Their hope is that all the glaciers melt so that they have new grounds for extracting what remains of the oil and gas.

  9. Charlie S says:

    I didn’t say give up all modern conveniences I suggested we slim down,get by on less.Soon or late we’re going to have no choice I’m convinced of this.
    I get by on less.Take television for example.I haven’t owned one of them contraptions in over 20 years.Is why I’m so smart.Just think of all the minds we’d save if we got rid of TV’s John.Less TV’s less energy being used,less minds being wasted.
    There’s so many little steps we can take to lessen our impact on this planet.Tell that to your average zombie.

  10. John L says:

    No TV is YOUR choice Charlie. You say I (and most of the rest of the country) is stupid because we watch TV. Again, YOUR opinion. Who appointed you the countrys guardian? You sound like an elitist liberal Charlie. And again, that’s only MY opinion.

  11. Paul says:

    If you have a computer like everyone commenting here does (or at least they have access to one even if it is the handheld version) than you are taking advantage of modern conveniences.

    And I would add one that requires plenty of oil to make and operate.

    At one time I am sure the scroll makers thought that the book makers had a quite a “contraption” when they started making those. Just like TVs and computers are the “contraptions” of our day. One mans “contraption” is another mans window to the world.

  12. Charlie S says:

    John….you’re jumping to conclusions.I did not say ‘You’ and the rest of the country are stupid because you watch tv.It is not me to be so crass.Not generally anyway.I did hint that there’s a ton of mindless people walking around (or driving) and that I’m convinced tv has something to do with it. Let’s face it John…television puts out a ton of mindless matter hence my suggestion that it makes people mindless.How do I know this (that television puts out a ton of mindless matter) if I don’t own a tv? Because everywhere I go,no matter where I go,I am subjected to one I have no choice in the matter. They ought to be outlawed in public! Have you seen ‘Night of the living dead’ John? Well let me tell you this…in daylight hours too the living dead are amongst us.

    Paul….I take advantage of the technology as I see the benefits from it. I use it for my photography,to write and to do family and historical research.I limit myself and I am very much disciplined when it comes to what I feed my head. I’m not the liberal elitist John suggests I am.Of course he wouldn’t know that he’s reading me wrong,which does not come as much of a shocker. I am very much aware of the things taking shape around me,and I care and am sympathetic to all the woes and if i’m read differently in what I write than maybe that’s because …. O’ what does it matter!

    The story of my life is putting up a defense with people who evidently are in a different zone than Charlie is and he’s okay with that. Excuse me for being concerned,for seeing this world as more than just a garbage pit,for seeing things differently. Hardly a one talks about the real serious issues in life Paul.Most of what you get is mindless banter.Of course you’d have to be stepped away from that to know. To most people (seemingly) a football is more important than a bumblebee,an ipod made in Japan more important than an orphan whose mommy and daddy were blown up by munitions ‘Made in the USA.’

    I know nothing is going to change Paul,we’re going to keep doing what we do (at whatever environmental cost) to keep the economic machine alive,but what I am saying is it is not going to be able to continue forever.I see it coming maybe I should be nicknamed Nostradamus. I’ll be long dead when iridescent hues are found on every last body of water on this planet,when Hollywood and McDonalds and the Baseball Hall Of Fame will be the things most talked about by a zombie race. Of course I’m being a little sarcastic and I am very much aware that there are a ton of good people doing their part to make this planet a better place (there’s just not enough of them) but I don’t think I’m far off the mark when I say ‘Unless we start thinking outside the box soon there’s no hope for the human race….and,unfortunately,for all of the other living things too.’

    The window to the world is what is in our head Paul,and if we’re feeding our heads garbage day in & day out,then that window becomes distorted,we become distorted.

    • Paul says:

      “I know nothing is going to change Paul,we’re going to keep doing what we do (at whatever environmental cost)”

      Lucky for my children this just isn’t true and things are changing perhaps not as quickly as you or I would like but they are changing. Sure we have a long way to go but lets just look at one example.

      You said here “the dumps are just filling up” If you look at the facts that isn’t true here in the US. We are producing far less landfill-able waste per person than we were several decades ago. We have 80% fewer landfills now than we had when we were kids (or at least when I was a kid). Sure some are much larger but that is because we use technology to deal much more efficiently with our waste. We recycle more and more each year. We continue to develop new ways to reduce and recycle. My guess is that by the time I die (if I am lucky to stick around a bit longer) we will be producing almost nothing that we would consider waste. Yes, there still will be other problems that we need to deal with.

      To make sure that these changes continue and accelerate we need to work together a grim attitude doesn’t seem to be productive in my opinion.

      I have used the Adirondacks as a great example of progress. This idea that more and more land is being lost to development in the Adirondacks is simply false and misleading. Just in the last 15 years we have protected almost a million acres of land from development via conservation easements alone. That doesn’t include all the other lands we have bought and classified or reclassified as well protected state forest preserve land. The building that is being done is being done in a far more environmentally friendly manner (despite what some think).

      But I am lucky I work with the smartest young people that we have every day so I have a much brighter perspective. Sure there are these “zombies out there filling their head with garbage” as you say but they are far out numbered by good people. I will have to respectfully disagree.

    • Paul says:

      Night of the Living Dead is a classic. I watched the DVD on my TV at my camp over the weekend (I really did!). I love the beginning scene where the brother and sister are visiting their parents grave at the beginning and they meet the first zombie. That isn’t garbage it is very entertaining. Charlie if you can borrow someone’s TV you should watch World War Z it is even better!

  13. Charlie S says:

    You’re more positive than me Paul.I like that! About the landfill bit though,where you say we’re producing less waste and there’s fewer landfills.I don’t know where you get these stats from but they don’t make sense to me.Heck,just by analyzing my neighbors I can tell you we are ‘not’ producing less waste.You wouldn’t believe how much garbage they throw out every week!Not just my neighborhood but everywhere I go I see heaps upon heaps of trash at curbsides on pickup day.It boggles the mind how much people use up every week.

    And if there’s fewer landfills then where are they throwing all of the trash?It cant be just disappearing into thin air.Maybe they’re dumping it in the ocean? Or might they be shipping it off to other states? There’s just no way there’s less dumps than there were ten years ago.And if there are the ones that exist must be expanding their sites.Indeed the dump in the Pine Bush Preserve near Albany was expanded just a few years ago to make room for all of the trash coming in.(A dump in the Pine Bush Preserve…imagine that!)

    And when you say “We recycle more and more each year” what you’re really saying is we’re wasting more and more each year.Recycling is an excuse to waste more Paul.Dont think I’m picking on you,i’m not. It just don’t make sense what you say as I see the opposite.We waste one heck of a lot and it boggles my mind how my neighbors alone can produce so much trash one week to the next.You should visit the burbs on garbage days and you’ll see what I’m talking about. I do like your positivity though.

    • Paul says:

      Charlie, I think that you need to start looking at the facts rather than basing your conclusions on anecdotal evidence like what you see in your neighbors yard.

      “Over the last few decades, the generation,
      recycling, composting, and disposal of MSW
      have changed substantially. Solid waste
      generation per person per day peaked in 2000
      while the 4.38 pounds per person per day is
      the lowest since the 1980’s. The recycling rate
      has increased–from less than 10 percent of
      MSW generated in 1980 to over 34 percent
      in 2012. Disposal of waste to a landfill has
      decreased from 89 percent of the amount
      generated in 1980 to under 54 percent of MSW
      in 2012.”

      The information I gave you comes from the EPA. Check it out yourself.


      Charlie, We have a ways to go but in the US we are going in the right direction (even with that terrible stuff going on in your neighborhood).

      I must admit I did enjoy my weekly trip to the dump with my father as a kid but luckily for us all those days are over! The poorly managed dump we went to is long gone.

  14. Charlie S says:

    You’re much more positive than me Paul.

    Remember above where I stated “‘Unless we start thinking outside the box soon there’s no hope for the human race…”
    Well evidently I’m not far off the mark according to a report in the news a few days ago.This is what the AP reports out of Washington: “A new study by top biologists finds that species of plants and animals are becoming extinct 1000 times faster than they did before humans arrived on the scene.They say the world is on the verge of a sixth great mass extinction…..”

    This story goes on a bit but that one liner says it all.What are we going to do without the other species Paul? Read about them in books? We need every living thing that’s left but you just can’t get that through to people who cannot see past dollar amounts,or past a football,or Judge Judy. I mean because, after all, money and short-term pleasures are more important than all those other forms of life on earth.Or didn’t you know? I do like your positive outlook though,and I don’t say that sarcastically.

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