The rail transport of Bakken crude oil from North Dakota has surged from almost nothing four years ago to 800,000 barrels per day. Pictured above: Local stakeholders listen to Moriah Supervisor Tom Scozzafava speak at a public forum on rail safety at the Whallonsburg Grange on Tuesday, Aug. 19.
WHALLONSBURG — The people-powered movement to address the increase in oil tankers gliding through the Champlain Valley region gained momentum on Tuesday, Aug. 19 when 90 stakeholders assembled at the Whallonsburg Grange Hall to discuss an issue that has now become unavoidable.
Tankers of crude from North Dakota are moving through the region at an accelerated clip, up from virtually nothing four years ago. They’re heading to a refinery at the Port of Albany, where the volatile oil is processed and shipped down the Hudson River.
Some of the cars are DOT-111 tankers, a rupture-prone older model that the Canadian government recently ordered to be phased out within the next two years.
The federal government is currently weighing their options for a similar measure. Their decision is expected to be handed down shortly.
Essex County residents, public officials and emergency responders have been increasingly assertive in staying abreast of the situation, an issue that has been brought into sharper focus after an unattended chain of tankers rolled seven miles down a hill in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, last summer before exploding and killing 47 people.
Municipal governments across the North Country are examining local emergency response capacity in the event of mishaps; they’re requesting cargo manifests, reviewing evacuation protocols and fine-tuning their relationship with Canadian Pacific (CP), the rail company tasked with shipping the volatile cargo through some of the most challenging terrain in the country.
And they’re holding public forums.
“Such solutions lie in such gatherings,” said Plattsburgh City Councilor Rachelle Armstrong, addressing the crowd that filled the Grange to capacity.
Armstrong said discussions with “feisty seniors” at the Lake Forest Senior Living Community initially tipped her off to the increase in rail traffic.
“They lived 100 yards from the tracks where CP ran trains,” she said. “They said to me, ‘What do we do?’ I told them didn’t have the answers, but pledged to look into it.”
Armstrong, a progressive political neophyte who took office earlier this year, said civic activism undertaken by ordinary people was the keystone to her entry into public service. Grassroots efforts and networking are needed, she said, to draw attention to public officials that oil freight is a “problem” that needs to be addressed.
She cited resolutions passed by municipal authorities in Spokane, Berkeley, Oakland and Portland as examples that needed to be emulated.
The Oakland City Council, for example, recently backed a resolution opposing the use of the city’s rail lines to transport crude.
But it since railroads are federally regulated, the measure is toothless.
Armstrong said it’s a moot point because the measure resulted in public scrutiny that might lead to pressure on the federal regulators in the run-up to their hotly-anticipated verdict.
“The local governments understood they had no jurisdiction to affect change,” she said. “But it’s a statement. You may agree or disagree with these, but it shows people can play an active role.”
A proposed Plattsburgh City Council task force was tabled in favor of an intra-country approach, she said.
“And that’s where we are today.”
Moriah Supervisor Tom Scozzafava said Essex County has been at the forefront of demanding information from CP, who are legally required to ship freight from Global Partners, the company that owns the tankers and their contents, as part of federal common carrier statutes.
“We put the hard questions to them,” he said, referring to a public meeting with CP officials in March. “The bottom line is you have to have regulations. The county can do plenty, but you also have to work at the local level.”
Scozzafava cited work with the Port Henry Fire Department and urged attendees to push for meetings with their local departments to discuss emergency response strategies. The next hands-on training drill is slated to be held on Sept. 24.
The trains, which often carry up to 120 cars, are required to cross state intersections within five minutes. Extending that timeframe to 10 might result in a slowdown, a measure Scozzafava said could boost safety.
Brian Mann, the North Country Public Radio Adirondack Bureau Chief who was invited to speak at the forum, said the debate on rail safety goes beyond what’s happening in the North Country.
While the country has put themselves back in the energy-producing business — the North Dakota oil fields are booming as a result of new extraction techniques, a national push towards energy independence and the discoveries of shale gas reserves — regulative efforts haven’t caught up.
The trend of deregulation in the industry has left regulatory agencies powerless and understaffed, he said. Regulatory agents dispatched to monitor the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in Gulf of Mexico in 2010, for instance, didn’t have the expertise to be effectively tackle the problem even after they appeared on the scene, he said.
“This isn’t about if there should be trains or not, but rather ensuring safety and regulatory standards,” he said, calling for what he referred to as a respectable and ethical middle ground. “We need oil, but we need to make sure the safety infrastructure is in place because the world has changed.”
The national debate about regulation is “blitheringly stupid,” he said.
“When you hear, ‘regulations are killing us,’ grab your wallet because the question really is, ‘Which regulations?’” he said. “Be specific.”
A report by Canada’s Transportation Safety Board released that same day identified 18 key factors that contributed to the Lac-Megantic incident, including inadequate handbrakes, shoddy testing procedures and staffers without proper training.
According to the report, the train’s engineer, who is now facing criminal charges, called the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway’s rail-traffic controller to report mechanical problems on the locomotive and plumes of smoke emitting from the exhaust.
The now-bankrupt railway authorized the engineer to leave the engine overnight while he retreated to a nearby hotel. A fire broke out. Firefighters shut down the locomotive, which gradually disengaged the engine’s air brakes before a railway-employed foreman with no background in locomotives arrived. After consulting with the rail-traffic controller, said the report, the firefighters left without restarting the locomotive.
Then the train started rolling toward Lac-Megantic.
“If any one of those had been corrected, this might not have happened,” said Mann. “There’s a slightly more nuanced conversation that we need to start having now.”
Mann said the world’s top engineers declared DOT-111 cars unsafe as far back as 1992. Some can be retrofitted to ensure more stringent safety standards, he said, but the exact effectiveness of that will likely be answered in the upcoming federal report.
The public comment period is ongoing.
At a meeting in March, CP officials stressed their safety record and gave lawmakers a detailed accounting of the measures they say have made them leaders in the railway industry.
“Safety is CP’s number one priority,” said CP representative Andy Cummings when asked for comment about the meeting. “We will continue to communicate directly with the communities in which we operate to find ways we can partner to further rail safety and maintain an open dialogue.”
CP employs staffers in the communities in which they operate. Past interviews with fire department officials and emergency response officials revealed that their offices have a direct pipeline to CP and are engaged in regular discussion on safety measures, including emergency protocols in the event of a derailment.
“Retrofitting concerns me,” said Laura Smith, a Willsboro-based environmental activist who runs the “Stop the Lake Champlain Oil Trains” Facebook page. “Crude is like sandpaper.”
Smith said her biggest concern at the county level is notification in the event of an accident. She said an official at the Essex County Department of Emergency Services told her they would reverse dial citizens in the event of an incident.
“You have to immediately vacate the area,” she said.
Essex County Department of Emergency Services Director Don Jaquish urged people to sign up for New York Alert, the state’s emergency notification program.
“The boots on the ground really are the fire departments,” he said. “Our priorities are always going to be the same — lives first.”
Tim Truscott pinned the uptick in traffic on elected officials who he said shirked their responsibilities to ensure public safety.
“Get rid of the dysfunctional government,” he said. “The trains didn’t just magically start coming though — it’s because Global Partners opened a facility in Albany.”
Truscott said the Department of Environmental Conservation didn’t follow proper protocol in issuing the permits. “Management circumvented the law,” he said. “This whole deal is bad news and there are things we need to do to make life more difficult for CP and GP.”
“I have no sympathy even though I’m a stockholder,” he said. “I’m holding onto it so I can attend next year’s shareholder meeting.”
Stefanie Benning, a recent transplant from Bradford, Pennsylvania, said her grandparents had an oil lease in the woods. They would immediately attend to reports of malfunctions, day or night.
“This whole fuel economy has gotten too big for us to do feel like we can do that,” she said.
Benning cited local energy cooperatives in Massachusetts.
“Maybe we can do something like that here.”
Brian Houseal, Director of the Adirondack Ecological Center at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry’s Newcomb campus, said he would make the connections for pro bono legal advice if necessary.
A mechanism was in place to combat the trains, he said, citing an accord in the North American Free Trade Agreement, something called the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, that provides an avenue for laypeople to file a submission in the event they feel federal authorities are failing to effectively enforce environmental law.
“You’re not alone,” he said. “This is being debated across the nation, a huge flood of oil trains, a binational issue. You have a stake and it’s important to take action.”
Mary-Nell Bockman said rail workers should be treated as allys.
“They’re on the frontlines every day. They’re becoming scapegoats. Railroads have cut crew sites, there’s now just one engineer on a mile-long train. We need to work with railways, with people who can get information. We need to find ways to build alliances and bring them into the conversation so they don’t feel persecuted.”
Former Wadhams Fire Department Chief Marshall Crowningshield said he “probably lived closer to anyone in the state” to railway lines — between 32-35 feet, he estimated.
“The trains don’t bother me,” he said.
He said oil would continue to be transported throughout the region by any means necessary, whether via pipeline or trucks.
Residents transporting gas cans in their vehicles down rural roads posed a bigger threat, he argued.
“It’s important to say the greatest danger is not someone filling up gas in the back of their pickup truck,” said Mann, who later called the meeting a “small-D democratic moment” and urged civic vigilance:
“Just ask yourselves a very simple civic question: ‘‘What happens when and if something happens?’” he urged participants.
A similar meeting is slated to be held at the Plattsburgh City Hall on Thursday, Aug. 28.