Environmental Groups Issue Report On Oil Train Threats To Lake Champlain Region

May 28, 2015

From left: John Sheehan, Adirondack Council; Aaron Mair, Sierra Club; Jim Murphy, National Wildlife Federation; Lori Fisher, Lake Champlain Committee; Jake Brown, Vermont Natural Resources Council
Credit Pat Bradley/WAMC

Environmental groups from New York and Vermont met at a wildlife management area adjacent to a rail line today to release a report detailing the threats of tar sands oil transport through the region. As WAMC’s North Country Bureau Chief Pat Bradley reports, environmentalists say new response plans issued by New York State this week are only a start.

The National Wildlife Federation, the Vermont Natural Resources Council, Environmental Advocates of New York, the Adirondack Council,  and the Lake Champlain Committee released the report:  “Tar Sands at our Doorstep: The Threat to the Lake Champlain Region’s Waters, Wildlife and Climate.”  

Representatives of the groups met at the Wickham Marsh State Wildlife Management Area in Port Kent, NY.  The marshy area is in the Adirondack Park. It is separated from Lake Champlain by a narrow road and a railroad berm.  Several times a day trains hauling crude oil pass by.

Rail berm separating Marsh State Wildlife Management Area (left) from Lake Champlain (right)
Credit Pat Bradley/WAMC

National Wildlife Federation Senior Counsel Jim Murphy, the lead author, says the report details three threats: moving the crude oil by pipeline, spill risk and the danger of rail transport.  “We’re on the banks of Lake Champlain, on a rail line that in the last decade has seen a forty-fold increase in oil by rail transport. Unless actions are taken to bring us off of oil and also to improve the safety of this region we are playing Russian roulette with the health of the lake.  An oil spill into the lake would be absolutely catastrophic.”

As Vermont begins to think about imposing a carbon tax and continues to move toward renewable energy, Vermont Natural Resources Council Spokesman Jake Brown says transport of oil is a step backwards.  “If there were some accident right here on this track, which is mere yards from the lake, we would send ourselves backwards in terms of cleaning up Lake Champlain. This isn’t necessary.  We don’t need this kind of transportation in this part of the Northeast.  The lake is a critical asset and we don’t need to put it at risk with this kind of transportation of oil.”

Lake Champlain Committee Executive Director Lori Fisher explained that the region is part of the Lake Champlain Adirondack Biosphere Reserve.  But it’s also a corridor of risk.  “Because every week between 15 and 30 million gallons of Bakken oil are being transported through these communities that gain no economic benefit from that transport. They only gain risk. We know from meetings we’ve had with local officials there’s not the capacity to deal with a spill should it happen.”  

On Wednesday, the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation announced new plans to enhance spill response plans across the state.  Based on a pilot program in Clinton County, it includes specific tactics to respond to crude oil incidents in sensitive areas. But Aaron Mair, President of the National Sierra Club, scoffs, saying taxpayers and communities still bear the burden.  “Right now the communities are bearing the full frontline risk. Right now there are children sleeping within twenty yards of the DOT-111 tanker bomb trains.  It runs right through the heart of this wilderness area. We have Lake Champlain. It is a frontline risk. So it is cheaper to leave it in the ground.”

The “Tar Sands At Our Doorstep” report calls for a moratorium on oil by rail, that pipeline transport be placed under stricter federal and state environmental review and that policies be enacted to move to renewable energy.