WILLSBORO — A time bomb has been set in the North Country. But instead of ticking, it’s set to the steady click-clack of the railroad track.
Last month, a series of fast-moving developments moved to address the rapid increase in crude oil transport by rail through the region.
Canada issued strict new requirements that immediately ordered 5,000 of the antiquated DOT-111 tank cars that are prone to accidents off the tracks and called for more stringent emergency response plans and speed limits, among other requirements.
New York State sent the federal government their comprehensive crude oil transportation report, which was recently completed in accordance with an executive order issued by Governor Cuomo in January and may weigh into their imposition of similar standards once the Department of Transportation chimes in.
And moments after news broke of the explosion and derailment that sent three tankers of crude into the James River in Lynchburg, Virginia on Wednesday, April 30, the state announced another round of targeted inspections of rail cars to ensure compliance with safety standards, something that would be darkly humorous if the stakes weren’t so high.
Local officials say its only a matter of time until a similar catastrophe befalls the Lake Champlain corridor that sees some 160,000 cars pass through daily from North Dakota on their way to the Port of Albany for refinement.
As the issue reaches a fever pitch at the state and federal levels, town officials are making progress across several fronts, including delegating authority during potential disaster scenarios, evaluating the environmental impact, boning up on emergency preparation and examining the potential for increased safety measures.
“This is exactly my biggest worry,” said Willsboro Town Supervisor Shaun Gillilland, referring to the accident in Lynchburg. “If we did have an incident, the town is definitely not prepared to handle this.”
After officials from Canadian Pacific (CP), the railway that ships that tank cars owned by Global Partners, gave a presentation to the Board of Supervisors on March 11 to assuage their fears, Gillilland contacted state and federal authorities, including the Coast Guard, to explore emergency response plans to see how the three levels of government would interact.
At that meeting, CP officials said they couldn’t share the specifics of their emergency response plan due to national security concerns, but were working with local communities to facilitate appropriate responses.
Gillilland said the state Department of Conservation (DEC) would respond at the state level in the event that a car toppled into Willsboro Bay. On the federal level, the Army and National Guard would provide drinking water if the town’s water supply became contaminated.
But the environmental remediation would linger on and pose a continuing problems long after the initial emergency response that would stabilize the situation, said Gillilland. The remediation process could take weeks, or even months, a development that worried him.
“Within the world of crude oils, Bakken is volatile,” he said. “It would disperse without sinking — it’s extremely explosive.”
Fighting an oil fire with water isn’t effective and the foam isn’t always available to volunteer fire departments with limited budgets, he said, adding an additional incentive for the state to be on the ball when it comes to supplementing town and county clean-up efforts.
The DEC did not respond to inquiries about their exact involvement in a potential disaster by the time this story went to press.
John Sheehan, a spokesperson for the Adirondack Council, an environmental advocacy organization, said a derailment would be a serious problem on many levels.
An oil spill would immediately smother fish and other aquatic life. Water-based birds would also be affected alongside any mammals that would come into contact with them.
At the same time, he said, a spill would concern businesses and homes that draw water from lake or river for drinking, irrigation or other purposes, from fishing to swimming to navigational and recreational boating.
“And then there’s the fire,” he said. “Who knows what the consequences would be? Anyone who saw the James River on fire should realize that can happen anywhere. This is something that scares me.”
According to news reports, a small amount of oil was spilled into the waterway in Lynchburg. While the Virginia Department of Health issued an advisory asking people to not swim, kayak, or paddle in the water, no advisory was issued for fishing or boating and the exact clean-up protocol is unclear.
Essex County Emergency Services Director Don Jaquish said his department is continuing to map out a scenario in the event of an accident.
“We’re doing some preparation and planning with grid maps,” he said.
In two new developments since the meeting at the Government Center in March that left some officials feeling skeptical, Jaquish said CP has shared what’s known as a “density report” with his department — a manifest of the 25 dangerous commodities that are being shipped on the railways, something he did not receive regularly before — and has been contacted by CP officials offering to pay to send a limited number of personnel for training in Colorado.
“We’re working on a timeline for sometime this fall,” he said.
CP representative Ed Greenberg said in an email message to the Valley News that CP, which was not involved in last week’s accident in Lynchburg, is committed to ongoing discussions with local emergency response officials to ensure his organization was in step with the county’s first responders.
“This includes meetings to go over emergency preparedness in the event of an incident,” he said. “Railroad education sessions are being planned with Essex County and we’re just working out some dates for the private discussions.”
Port Henry Fire Department Chief Jim Hughes said he’s been working directly with Scott Croome, a CP-employed emergency response specialist.
“We are attempting to arrange training on a local basis, preferably in Port Henry,” said Hughes. “We’ve also been extended an invite to send five fighters to a three-day course in conjunction with the county hazmat team.”
On April 30, the day of the Lynchburg derailment, CP sent the Port Henry Fire Department an invitation to a security and emergency response training center in Pueblo, Colorado for a handful of sessions spanning from August to October.
“We just need to confirm a date,” said Hughes, adding that his department plans to fold this into county-sponsored hazmat training.
“CP is working closely with us to assist us with our emergency response plans.”
Addressing concerns about sight distance and what are perceived as unsafe railway crossings, officials in towns like Ticonderoga, Crown Point and Moriah — places where tracks slice through streets that are mere yards from homes and businesses in what CP has called some of the “most dangerous terrain in the country” — supervisors are working on compiling a list of crossings to kick up to CP and DOT, the institutions that are ultimately responsible for their upkeep and placement.
“The question about warning devices came after that meeting in March,” said Ticonderoga town supervisor Bill Grinnell.
Private crossings are currently not required to be marked with lights or safety rails. His town has nine of them. After the other participating towns complete their inventories, they will lobby the DOT to make a decision about facilitating possible improvements, like solar devices that are triggered from a distance, for example, or “whatever else that would be appropriate from a safety standpoint,” said Grinnell.
“Private residences will hopefully at least have alerts on outboard side,” he said.
He had some additional sage advice to accompany this accelerated push of disaster planning sweeping the county:
“Run like hell.”