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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.