Four environmental organizations are sponsoring a forum in Plattsburgh this week on the dangers of transporting Bakken crude oil on trains through the Champlain Valley, but trains may someday be moving another hazardous fuel through the region: oil from the Canadian tar sands.
Global Companies receives Bakken crude at the Port of Albany, much of which is transported on a rail line that runs along the shore of Lake Champlain. Bakken crude is a volatile fuel that caused massive explosions when a train derailed in Quebec last year, killing forty-seven people.
The Adirondack Council, Adirondack Mountain Club, Center for Biological Diversity, and Lake Champlain Committee have invited federal officials, local emergency planners, and others to Thursday’s forum to discuss the risks of moving Bakken crude through the Champlain Valley. The forum will start at 7 p.m. in the Plattsburgh City Hall auditorium.
Global Companies wants to modify its operations at the Port of Albany so it can handle tar-sands oil, according to Earthjustice, a nonprofit organization that specializes in environmental legal issues.
Christopher Amato, an attorney at Earthjustice, said Global wants to install steam boilers at the port to heat tar-sands oil that would be brought to Albany on the same line. Because of its thickness, tar-sands oil must be heated before it can be transferred from railcars to storage tanks.
Amato said the tar-sands oil is not as volatile as Bakken crude, but he warned of an environmental disaster if tar-sands oil were to spill into Lake Champlain: because the oil is so heavy, it would sink to the bottom, making cleanup difficult and expensive.
“It’s like putting a layer of asphalt on the bottom of the lake,” remarked Amato, a former assistant commissioner for the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
DEC spokesman Pete Constantakes said Global has yet to confirm that it intends to receive tar-sands oil. “DEC will continue to demand this information from Global,” he said.
Earthjustice is representing three groups suing DEC and Global over its plans to expand operations at the Port of Albany. Last fall, DEC signed off on the plans, saying Global would not have to prepare an environmental impact statement. In its lawsuit, Earthjustice demands DEC rescind its decision and require an impact statement.
DEC itself seems to be having second thoughts. In March, the department wrote Global to say it was reviewing its earlier decision, which it characterized as interim. In reply, Global attorney Dean Sommer insisted that the decision was “final and binding” and that “the rule of law, not political considerations, must prevail in this process.”
DEC has extended the public comment period until September 30.
Amato said both the Bakken crude and tar-sands oil would be transported through the Champlain Valley on tracks owned by Canadian Pacific Railway, possibly on the same train. “You have one that is extremely explosive and very volatile, and the other is an ecological disaster on wheels,” he said. “The two of them together are the worst combination you could come up with.”
The tracks often lie within a stone’s throw of Lake Champlain. They cross through the city of Plattsburgh and over the Saranac, Ausable, and Boquet rivers. Environmentalists say the local trains contain up to a hundred oil cars and transport on average 3.4 million gallons of crude a day.
Environmentalists contend that the production and burning of tar-sands oil would contribute greatly to climate change and have been fighting the Keystone XL pipeline that would be used to transport the oil across Canada and the United States.
In the suit, Earthjustice is representing the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the tenants of a housing project near the port. The Pace Environmental Litigation Clinic is representing Riverkeeper Inc. and the Waterkeeper Alliance.
Photo from Wikipedia: oil-train explosion in Lac-Megantic, Quebec.
A version of this story appears in the September/October issue of the Adirondack Explorer newsmagazine.