NY State Cites Progress on Dealing With Dangerous Crude-Oil Trains

Town Board, environmentalists discuss issues at stake

By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong

The U.S. government refers to long lines of railroad cars carrying crude oil as “High-Hazard Flammable Trains.”

Some environmentalists call them “bomb trains.”

And because the trains, as well as boats, carry vast quantities of the volatile fuel along the Hudson River and beyond, on Jan. 28 Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered state agencies to confront the dangers. Last week, his administration reported progress on some initiatives, ongoing work on others and the need for similar responses by the federal government and oil industry.

Conservationists welcomed the state’s tentative good news, but echoed its pleas for a doubling-down of efforts by other players. The trains run along the Hudson River, typically on the river’s western side, past historic communities, numerous schools (including the U.S. Military Academy at West Point) and near sensitive environmental areas.

Philipstown fears

Supervisor Richard Shea Wednesday night (Dec. 10) proposed at a Town Board workshop that Philipstown take a stand. “A lot of communities have passed resolutions calling for a more thorough study of the track bed, a more thorough study of the whole process,” he said. “The volume of trains carrying this type of oil has increased dramatically. Suddenly there was just a lot more traffic coming down the other side of the river.”

He said it involves “the same type of oil, same situation” as in Canada, where a recent oil-train accident killed 47 people and devastated a village. Along the Hudson, “who would be responsible for responding to an emergency episode like that? Are they going to rely on volunteer emergency services?”

Concrete has crumbled beneath one of the bridge's vertical supports.

Concrete has crumbled beneath one of the bridge’s vertical supports (file photo).

Shea also mentioned a photo shot by a resident this year of an apparently deteriorated trestle across the river and an apparent shrug-off by the pertinent train company. (Philipstown.info reported on such a condition. See “CSX Says Bridge Safe,” Aug. 1.)

“It strikes me as a hazard and something that hasn’t been looked at,” he said. “We’re not asking for the world here. We’re just asking, ‘Has somebody taken a good review of this?’ What about the CSX track bed? What about DOT [Department of Transportation] protocols?”

Councilor Mike Leonard remarked that a crude-oil rail accident “would have a direct impact on the Hudson River — direct. It’s not like you’re inland and you’ve got time to contain it somehow.” Along with all the other massive problems, an accident would probably shut down not only trains on the west side of the river but river traffic as well, Leonard said.

Other board members made similar points and Shea promised to draft a proposed local resolution soon.

From New York to North Dakota

New York state released its 58-page “status report,” Transporting Crude Oil in New York State: A Review of Incident Response and Prevention Capacity, Dec. 1. As the report notes, since 2008 a huge upsurge in production of crude oil, much of it from the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota and Montana, and Saskatchewan and Manitoba provinces in Canada, has led to a proliferation of crude-oil transport through New York state.

oil train map

A map prepared by Scenic Hudson shows oil-train routes along the river (click image for PDF).

According to the document, New York contains no refineries, but Albany serves as a transfer hub and crude-oil trains use up to 25 percent of rail lines in New York, conveying the oil to refineries elsewhere.

Despite tentative federal action this summer, New Yorkers perceive sluggishness in Washington.

“Over the past six months, our administration has taken swift and decisive action to … better protect New Yorkers from the possibility of a crude oil disaster,” Cuomo said on the report’s release. “Now it is time for our federal partners to do the same.” The report explains that the federal government holds “exclusive statutory and regulatory authority over the interstate transportation of crude oil”

Tuesday (Dec. 9), the Empire State found a potential ally halfway across the country, when the North Dakota Industrial Commission, which includes that state’s governor, adopted new rules forcing oil producers to make Bakken crude safer before shipment. The commission mandated that, pre-transport, the fuel be conditioned to separate it into gas and liquid and remove light hydrocarbons and keep a vapor pressure of no more than 13.7 pounds per square inch (psi), less than the national standard of 14.7 psi.

In an October letter, Joseph Martens and Joan McDonald, commissioners of the New York State Departments of Environmental Conservation and Transportation, respectively, had asked North Dakota to adopt such regulations.

To deal with the problem closer to home, New York state’s April report recommended numerous actions [See “Crude-Oil Train Hazards Bring Federal Emergency Action, State Efforts,” May 16]. Its Dec. 1 report outlines the follow-up since then and says that, among other things, the state:

Hired five new rail safety inspectors, which augments the inspection force to “significantly enhance New York’s ability to monitor the safety of rail operations” by inspecting tracks and oil tanker-rail car equipment and enforcing regulations on hazardous materials.

With the rail corporation CSX, held railroad and tank car training for local and state emergency responders in the Hudson Valley and other regions.

In conjunction with Canadian Pacific, another railroad, organized oil-spill containment training for first responders on the Hudson River in Albany.

Alongside the Federal Railroad Administration, conducted seven “blitz” inspection sweeps of oil-transport infrastructure, covering 6,664 rail cars and approximately 2,564 miles of track and detecting 740 track and rail equipment defects, including 12 hazardous materials defects that the railroads corrected.

Released “strategic and tactical guidance for fire departments during the initial phases of a rail incident involving crude oil,” while observing that “any significant derailment involving a crude oil spill or fire will likely require a large-scale and multi-agency response from all levels of government.”

Sought swift implementation of federal regulations mandating use of safer railroad tank cars for crude-oil transportation, and promoted other crude-oil train safety measures at the federal level.

Encouraged the Coast Guard to review the response plans of tankers and tug boats involved in crude-oil shipping by water to ensure that those plans adequately account for potential dangers and worked with the Coast Guard in coordination efforts.

Asked the American Petroleum Institute (API), a leading trade group in Washington for the oil industry, and the API’s member oil companies, to reduce the volatility of Bakken crude oil before shipping it by railroad.

Furthermore, according to the report, in March the state fined CSX $10,000 for tardy notification of two derailments and in May announced a $5,000 fine of Canadian Pacific for a derailment. However, it complained that “while the rail industry has made progress” lately on enhancing safety, “the oil production industry has actively opposed taking protective measures.”

Maloney weighs in

Like the state, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney — who lives in the Cold Spring area — wants a more vigorous federal role. This fall he requested the DOT to promptly finalize regulations stipulating that controversial DOT-111 train cars be discontinued or retrofitted to meet heightened safety standards.

“Since 1992, we’ve known these were highly hazardous, which is precisely why we need to immediately phase out” such models, currently “carrying highly explosive and dangerous crude,” he said. “With billions of gallons of oil barreling down the Hudson, it’s an accident waiting to happen if we don’t act. The safety of our neighbors, environment and communities is far too important.”

Environmental applause and appeals

Scenic Hudson commended New York state actions so far but also urged renewed efforts. It likewise reiterated its call for “a moratorium on crude oil transport along the Hudson River until further safety measures are in place.”

The environmental group also proposed that the state change its oil spill fund program to increase fees on crude oil transported through the state and channel the additional money to spill prevention and preparedness. At present, it said, cleaning an oil spill would cost 40 times more than the spill fund contains.

“It is crucial that the state dedicate additional resources to dramatically reduce the daily threat to communities and natural resources throughout the state and in the Hudson Valley,” said Ned Sullivan, Scenic Hudson president. “We’ve seen disasters with crude oil accidents across the nation, experienced derailments in the Hudson Valley and witnessed a rising public outcry for the state to make this issue a priority.”

Another Hudson River–oriented environmental group, Riverkeeper, also advocates more stringent controls over crude-oil trains, or, in its parlance, “bomb trains.” Nov. 25, Riverkeeper petitioned the federal government to limit oil trains to 4,000 tons, a weight that, it said, the American Association of Railroads associates with “a ‘no problem’ train” — less likely to derail.

Riverkeeper said the weight restriction would limit crude-oil trains to 30 cars, in contrast to the 100-car trains mostly used now. “Setting a cap on train length and weight is a necessary, logical, safety step … one of the simplest ways to reduce the risks that our communities, first-responders and ecosystems are confronted with on a daily basis,” said Phillip Musegaas, Riverkeeper’s Hudson River program director.

Specifically mentioned in the state report, the American Petroleum Institute did not respond to a request for comment. In a Sept. 30 press briefing, though, API President Jack Gerard discussed the issue.

“North America’s rail network moves hazardous materials without incident 99.998 percent of the time,” Gerard asserted. “The challenge for both industry and regulators is to address and eliminate the remaining .002 percent.” He endorsed outreach to emergency responders “to help ensure they have the training and information they need” and cited API’s support for trains’ “enhanced braking capabilities” and “proper testing … as well as tank-car design,” new-car construction and safety-retrofitting.

However, he argued that moving too fast could disrupt fuel production and cost, in consumer impact, $22.8 to $45.2 billion over 10 years. “While tank cars are an important part of the comprehensive approach to safety,” he concluded, “there are limits to what tank car design can achieve. Getting to zero incidents will take an equal effort to prevent accidents and improve accident response.”

North Dakota’s tougher standards take effect April 1 and, according to its industrial commission, affect “every barrel of Bakken crude” in the state. Lynn Helms, North Dakota’s director of Mineral Resources, said his department would conduct field visits and that any oil company failing to comply with the rules could face penalties of up to $12,500 per day of violation.

Become a Member
Join The Highlands Current and support our independent local journalism for as little as $2 per month. Click here to see the benefits. As a nonprofit, we are able to provide our website and weekly print paper free to the community because of the generosity of our readers.

7 thoughts on “NY State Cites Progress on Dealing With Dangerous Crude-Oil Trains

  1. “But, if the regulatory goal of the order is to render the Bakken oil trains NON-explosive, Order No. 25417 isn’t going to cut it.” [link.]

    “The second important thing to note is that almost all of the oil that the industry and regulators have sampled in the past year has been well below 13.7 psi. Of 99 samples taken in the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s sampling study, 94 were below 13.7 psi and the average psi for that study was 12.3 psi.” [link]

  2. “In the US, despite several Congressional hearings, there has not been a question about railroad under-insurance. The political focus has instead been on pushing the Department of Transportation to issue new rules for tank cars and to make sure, in effect, that emergency responders have enough foam to spray on the embers of a populated area after an oil train explosion. Elected officials have not wrestled with who will have to pay for the potentially billions of dollars in uninsured damages and whether it’s appropriate that taxpayers will likely have to pick up the tab.” [link]

  3. Thanks to The Paper for continuing to cover this important issue. While the steps taken by the state are positive ones, they are baby steps relative to the more comprehensive ones that need to be taken. Urgently needed is a thorough study of the risks and impacts of an oil train accident along the tracks in the state, including the CSX River Subdivision that runs right along the Hudson River from opposite Hyde Park to Haverstraw, before heading inland again.

    To visualize what happens in an oil train accident, and for a better understanding of the nature of these risks, the Weather Channel teamed up with Inside Climate News to produce a 10-minute documentary on oil train impacts.

    To better understand the risks communities face on the Hudson, Riverkeeper produced a short video featuring deteriorating track infrastructure along the CSX River Subdivision, in particular, right next to Storm King.

  4. These oil trains point up the urgency of approving the XL Keystone pipeline ASAP. It would solve a host of problems and increase our continuing energy independence.

  5. My understanding is that the pipeline will facilitate transport abroad and has really nothing to do with energy independence – it is diesel not oil which countries need. The route of the trains is across country to ports on the east coast.

  6. Actually it is a misnomer that the Keystone XL pipeline will do anything to address the problem of oil-on-train transport along the Hudson River. Even Rep. Sean Maloney, who recently voted (again) for KXL, is incorrect when he states, “I want to get these oil shipments under control in the Hudson Valley, and the Keystone Pipeline is an alternative way of moving this highly volatile crude.” Not so. The KXL pipeline is designated to move heavy Canadian tar sands crude south to Texas refineries. The light crude that is being extracted from North Dakota is shipped to refineries on the East and West coast — and shipped by train. There is not a drop of Canadian tar sands crude on the Hudson River trains. It would be a nice followup to Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong’s good report to question Rep. Maloney about his steadfast support for the Keystone XL pipeline.

  7. To those who think the rail oil pipe line along the Hudson is fine, what will they say when one derails and explodes in the tunnel under West Point (the United States Military Academy, you know) or across from the city of Poughkeepsie, whose drinking water comes from the river? Oh, the answer is Keystone, let somebody else worry about the environmental catastrophes when it breaks or is bombed by terrorists. This is the perfect time to get serious about alternative energy and wean ourselves from this non-renewable crap from the bowels of the earth.