Yes, we are a reactionary society, yelling at the top of our lungs about what is happening right now.
That is why, in the midst of the Donald Sterling backlash and all of the usual outrage that accompanies what has become the Annual American Racist Story, the train derailment and subsequent fire that rocked Lynchburg, Virginia on April 30 has gone under reported.
This is really something that we in the North Country need to pay attention to.
In that incident, 13 tanker cars derailed and three fell into the James River. The resulting fireball spewed hazardous oil into the natural landscape, an area graced by the pristine Blue Ridge Mountains, and caused an immediate environmental concern. An unspecified amount of oil leaked into the river, potentially upsetting the ecosystem.
The rail cars involved were the same type that were carrying crude in the Lac-Megantic spill that killed 47 and leveled most of a town last year in Quebec.
These cars were also involved in spills in Alabama, North Dakota and New Brunswick.
In the North Country, we sit very close, if not on top of, the epicenter for East Coast rail transportation of this crude oil. Trainloads come through Canada on their way to downstate refineries, including one at the Port of Albany.
They travel along our riverways and lakeshores in DOT-111 containers that have recently been outlawed by the Canadian government. These single-wall cars were not even designed to carry crude oil.
Some of them pass within yards of shorelines, homes and businesses, many through unmarked intersections rife with blind spots.
Even with a ban on these cars, which have been proven to be accident-prone and unsafe, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) reported 14 of the 17 cars involved in the Lynchburg accident were built “to a higher standard voluntarily adopted by the industry in 2011.”
Good news, right?
Wrong. The NTSB and the railroad industry believe these cars are also not built well enough for crude oil transportation.
In Albany County, lawmakers have placed a moratorium on the growth of rail facilities shipping crude oil, seeking to initiate a study of their health impacts and following last week’s incident, County Executive Daniel McCoy doubled down on his intent to keep his country’s residents safe and called on the federal government to take immediate action.
We agree action needs to be taken, and now.
Recently, the railway operator responsible for shipping the crude told the Essex County Board of Supervisors they were working closely with local officials in drafting emergency response plans in the event of an accident.
This meeting came after area residents noticed an uptick in rail traffic speeding through the North Country.
The meeting left some supervisors still questioning what would happen if there was a spill due to a derailment and what could be done to prevent them from happening.
Since then, Canadian Pacific has made efforts to bone up on facilitating a smoother communication process with local officials. They have offered to fly officials out for training and have shared information that they were previously sluggish in providing.
For that, we applaud them for their outreach and attentiveness to the residents of the region.
Following their responsiveness, the first thing the federal government needs to do as it awaits a pending report from the Department of Transportation is to follow in Canada’s footsteps, take a page from their playbook and ban DOT-111 cars from our railways.
They have proven to be ineffective in transporting crude oil and very dangerous, fatally so, in derailment situations.
The federal government and railway companies need to come together to design and create a new generation of rail cars that will make this transportation as safe as possible.
At the same time, the companies who own the tanker cars need to step to the plate. We know after looking at our heating bills these companies have the money to invest in safety considerations.
Local communities also must get involved, working with their towns, counties and state emergency management services to have a plan in place in case a spill happens in their community.
There are very few towns in the Adirondacks that do not have railways running through them, many times through populated hamlets, along agricultural land or along waterways.
If these things do not happen, we fear it is just a matter of time before we are talking about a train derailment that dumps thousands of gallons of crude into Lake Champlain or an explosion causing the evacuation of areas of Plattsburgh.