Heat rising on oil plan
Public airs safety concerns over Port of Albany plan to heat, ship crude oil
Published on 2/13/2014 by the Times Union written by Brian Nearing
Albany: For more than three hours Wednesday, voices in the auditorium of Giffen Elementary School on South Pearl Street echoed what is a growing national debate over safety concerns brought on by a rising tide of crude oil being shipped across the county in rail cars.
Several hundred people jammed the auditorium at a hearing called by the state Department of Environmental Conservation to address growing concerns over plans by an oil terminal at the Port of Albany to begin heating the crude arriving in massive "oil trains" from the Midwest.
The hearing was meant to focus on a request by Global Companies LLC, based in Waltham, Mass., which is seeking DEC permission to build boilers at its rail yard to heat crude-laden tank cars to thin oil and make it easier to pump into storage tanks and then onto barges headed south down the Hudson River to refineries on the Eastern seaboard. Some crude continues southward in trains.
But a parade of more than 70 speakers, after listening to brief presentations by a DEC official and a Global executive, accused the state of dropping the ball as far back as 2012, when DEC approved plans by Global to double the amount of crude it can handle at the port to 1.8 billion gallons a year.
That was before a spate of derailments and explosions of oil trains focused national attention on such shipments. DEC ruled that Global's increased shipments would have no negative impact on the environment and accepted at face value the company's claims that handling more crude would not require increased rail traffic.
"You are guilty, DEC — guilty of sliding things through. How high up this goes, I really don't care," said Charlene Benton, president of the tenants association at the Ezra Prentice Homes, a city-owned public housing project in the South End that backs up against rail storage yards at the port where oil tankers are stored.
These particular tankers, called DOT-111s, have been found to be prone to rupture during derailments, which can allow highly flammable crude oil to explode. Such explosions have happened in Quebec, where 47 people died last year, and in Alabama and North Dakota.
The federal government, which regulates rail shipments and safety, is exploring whether to impose tougher safety standards on the rail cars. On Thursday, a railroad industry group urged the government to act.
Albany has found itself in the forefront of a growing debate. As energy companies extract more and more oil from the Bakken fields in North Dakota, there is more crude than pipelines can handle — so rail shipments heading East to ship the backlog are skyrocketing. Oil trains can be more than a mile long and contain more than 100 cars that carry millions of gallons of crude.
Last week, after opponents accused DEC of ignoring its own policies meant to ensure environmental justice for poor and minority communities, such as the South End, the state reversed course and said it would require Global to file "enhanced" plans to comply with the policy.
DEC Deputy Commissioner Mark Gerstman said he expected such plans to be filed "quickly." He also said that the agency is reviewing its earlier decision to declare that both Global's doubled crude shipments and its proposed crude heating facility would have no negative environmental impact. "This is the start of a process, not the end of a process," he said.
If DEC reverses course on those approvals, it could require Global to prepare an environmental impact state, a detailed and time-consuming process designed to lay out any potential environmental risks of a project. Gerstman said he did not want to speculate if that might happen.
Global never returns press calls seeking comment, but company Vice President Tom Keefe, in charge of environmental health and safety, read a prepared statement at the hearing saying "safety is our top priority" and that the environmental justice plan was "under development."
However, to the disappointment of many in the crowd, Keefe did not identify what type of crude oil the company intends to heat, calling it only "certain types of crude." He declined further comment when approached by reporters.
That just fueled speculation that Global wants to start shipping Canadian tar sands oil, which is thicker than Bakken crude and needs to be heated during cold weather to allow it to be pumped. "It is a very simple question. And I'd like a simple answer," said Roger Downs, conservation director of the Atlantic Chapter of the Sierra Club.
City Common Council President Carolyn McLaughlin said DEC had let down the city and the South End by green-lighting the increased oil shipments by Global and accepting the company's claims that the project did not trigger the agency's environmental justice policies. "You let us down two years ago," she said.
"You are patting yourself on the back up there, but you had nothing to do with it. You are here because people demanded it," added Dominick Calsolaro, a former City Council member who represented the South End.
He also blasted DEC officials for posting armed, uniformed officers at the auditorium. "I find that very insulting. You would not find that if this was Loudonville, Colonie or Bethlehem," he said, drawing a roar of approval from the crowd.
This month, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order that directed four agencies — DEC, Health Department, Transportation Department, and Homeland Security and Emergency Services Division — to report by April 30 on state preparedness to handle a potential crude oil spill or resulting fire "by rail, ship or barge." Cuomo specifically cited "significant expansion in the use of the Port of Albany in the distribution and transportation of crude oil" in his order.
Read the article at the Times Union