Putnam Legislature Opposes Oil Trains, MTA Tax

Legalizes limited use of sparklers for 4th of July

By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong

With little ado, the Putnam County Legislature last Wednesday (April 8) opposed two train-transit practices, one involving freight traffic — the unsafe shipping of incendiary crude oil along the Hudson River; and the other involving commuter lines — the levying of taxes to support the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, whose trains carry numerous county residents to work every day.

By 8-0 votes (with one member absent), the legislature urged New York State to revoke permits that allow volatile oil to travel on the Hudson and to reverse its finding that expanding an Albany oil transportation terminal raises no “significant” concerns. It likewise sought the repeal of the MTA taxes on payrolls and vehicles.

In other business at its formal monthly meeting, the legislature unanimously opted to legalize limited use of sparklers, popular Fourth of July “pyrotechnic” devices.

Barges and ‘bomb’ trains

In addressing the so-called “bomb” train question, the all-Republican legislature added its voice to a growing, bipartisan chorus of local governments in the Hudson Valley opposing the use of rail lines along the river, as well as barges, to move highly explosive oil without adequate safeguards. The legislature devoted much of a committee meeting in February to a background discussion of the issue. (See County Committee to Draft Call for Action on Bomb Trains.)

Its resolution, to be sent to Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state legislative officials, refers to use of “unacceptably dangerous” rail cars to move Bakken shale oil and heavy tar-sands oil, which originate in North Dakota and Alberta, Canada, and are more hazardous than other forms of fuel. The resolution says that daily two to three oil trains, each with 3 million gallons, travel down the western side of the Hudson, opposite Putnam. It points out that recent oil-train derailments in the United States and Canada caused “loss of property and significant environmental and economic damage” as well as, in one case, 47 deaths.

The resolution notes that one oil company, Global Partners LP, proposes to expand its oil terminals in Newburgh and New Windsor, across the Hudson from Putnam County, which could “double the number of trains and marine vessels” carrying such dangerous fuel along the Hudson, despite the presence of designated Significant Coastal Fish and Wildlife Habitats in the Hudson Highlands, Fishkill Creek and elsewhere. A similar expansion is proposed for an Albany facility, the legislature stated.

The resolution also declares that:

  • Under present laws, “no collaboration must take place between the railroads and the towns through which these rail cars [go].”
  • “There have been no spill-response drills in Putnam County waters.”
  • “Putnam County’s shorelines include private residences and businesses, public parks, and critical public infrastructure at significant risk in the case of a crude-oil spill” and that “tourism based on a clean environment is an important part of Putnam County’s economy.”

The legislature asked the state “to immediately revoke permits … allowing for the transport of up to 2.8 billion gallons per year of crude oil on the Hudson River [and] order full environmental impact studies, including the potential impacts of a crude oil spill in the Hudson River affecting Putnam County shoreline property, environmental resources, and drinking water.”

It similarly urged the state to rescind a “negative declaration of significance” on expansion of Albany oil operations and “order a full, integrated environmental impact study of the proposed expansion” of oil terminals in New Windsor and Newburgh, as well as Albany.Under present laws, “no collaboration must take place between the railroads and the towns through which these rail cars [go].”

“It’s not understood” how much risk the transport of volatile oil brings, said Carl Albano, the legislature’s chairman. “It’s a major, major issue in our backyard.”

Legislator Barbara Scuccimarra, who represents Philipstown, observed that the “bomb” trains run along the Hudson “over crumbling bridges and through towns and villages,” compounding the potential for devastation.

“There are really no safeguards in place and it’s scary. If we were to have an explosion, it would be catastrophic,” Legislator Dini LoBue added.

MTA Tax

While the legislature expressed worries about the impact of “bomb” trains on the environment, it similarly (though in much shorter resolutions) criticized taxes on payrolls and vehicles to support the MTA’s mass-transit system — regardless of the role mass transit may play in minimizing air pollution by keeping cars off roads.

Putnam County is in the state-designated Metropolitan Commuter Transportation District, which covers mass transit for New York City and a several-county area beyond it. A district tax of 34 cents per $100 of payroll and a statewide supplemental vehicle registration and license fee or tax help fund the MTA, which operates the Metro-North railroad, with the Hudson Line serving Cold Spring, Garrison and places in Westchester and Dutchess Counties along the river, and the Harlem Line stopping in Southeast, Brewster and Patterson in eastern Putnam, as well as in Westchester and Dutchess Counties.

“We feel it’s burdensome to the people of Putnam County” to charge such taxes, Legislator Joseph Castellano said in introducing the votes.

“The last place you want to tax is payroll,” Albano emphasized. “I feel that any money needed should come from the city, not Putnam.”

Sparklers

As authorized by a 2014 state law, the legislature updated the county legal code to provide “that sparkler devices may be sold and enjoyed.” Typically hand-held, sparklers emit colorful sparks “as their primary pyrotechnic effect” when set off, as the resolution observed.

The county law limits sales to periods from June 1 through July 5, and from Dec. 26 to Jan. 2, for the Fourth of July and New Year’s holidays; requires state licenses for sparkler distributors, manufacturers and retailers; and restricts purchases of sparklers to those age 18 and above.


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3 thoughts on “Putnam Legislature Opposes Oil Trains, MTA Tax

  1. Hooray for Putnam County in standing up to the Cuomo administration and doing battle for the safety of the people plus being good caretakers of the natural environment.

  2. As a carbon-efficient means of travel, high-functioning rail service is an important aspect of a future sustainable economy. But, even so, railroads have to be regulated. The profit motive is simply too strong to allow the railroad to properly weigh public health and safety against costs of production.

    Doug Finnson, president of a Teamsters union representing CN Rail’s train crews, said he was particularly concerned with the recent Ontario derailments. “We’re on the record saying the trains are too long, the cars are too heavy, and the trains go too fast.”

    Demand that the Federal Railroad Administration enforce railroad health and safety rules. They can enforce the current rules even as they go through the process of strengthening the rules to tailor them to the growing volatility of cargoes like crude oil. Sign the petition at moveon.org.

  3. If they had to build a pipeline from North Dakota to the East/West Coast there would be hearings galore. The equivalent rail “pipeline” offers no chance for public hearings whatsoever.

    The Federal Railroad Administration has virtually no power to regulate the railroads, especially with the current Congress.

    Congratulations to the Putnam County legislature for trying to limit the “bomb” trains along the beautiful Hudson River.