It was standing room only in Plattsburgh’s city hall auditorium last night as officials presented information on oil trains traversing the region and the potential impact of accidents.
The forum was organized by the Adirondack Council, the Adirondack Mountain Club, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Lake Champlain Committee to discuss the issues surrounding the increasing numbers of trains hauling volatile Bakken crude oil through the region. Adirondack Council Spokesman John Sheehan says they wanted to raise awareness about the increased oil train traffic in the North Country more than a year after the oil train derailment in Quebec that killed 47 people. “We know that there is both an environmental risk hare and a risk to people’s lives. This gave us an opportunity to get the conversation going and maybe get some people involved in getting the situation changed. I know that we saw a train full of oil cars go by just a little after six o’clock right here at city hall. It was a pretty good indication of just how close this traffic is to everybody. Each one of those trains is carrying 3 million gallons of oil or more. So a spill would be a very big problem if it got out of control. We want to avoid any tragedy but we also didn’t want to whip people into a frenzy before we had a good sense of what really needed to be done.”
Panelists included the Essex and Clinton county Emergency Service directors, U.S. EPA Emergency and Remedial Response representatives, a sea grant Lake Champlain researcher and the founder of the Healthy Schools Network.
The dangers to schools have largely been ignored in the debate, according to Healthy Schools Network founder and executive director Claire Barnett. She explained that her organization has mapped schools within the danger zones along the rail route from Montreal to Albany and analyzed evacuation plans. “There are 75 public and private K-12 school facilities in the Capital region and the Adirondack North Country within one mile of the rail lines carrying crude oil. Thirty-five of those schools are within one-half mile. Schools do get emergency management planning grants. But we also have an example, Saratoga Springs Middle School a year or two ago, did a derailment evacuation drill but used the standard evacuation plan. So the children were marched under the rail pass, under the overpass, to the fire department. Well, if there had been a derailment you wouldn’t want to go under the railroad. You also probably wouldn’t want to go to the fire department because all the equipment is in motion. I think there’s a lot more work for New York State to do and there’s certainly a lot more work federally to do.”
The audience listened politely as panelists gave 10-minute presentations. But when the question and answer session began, it was clear that the crowd was frustrated with the growing number of trains carrying the volatile oil. Attendees charged industry, state and federal officials with inaction and ineffectiveness.
“What I’m hearing tonight is reaction. When there’s a spill, when a train goes off the tracks, it’s too late. We’re asking that the trains be stopped until big rail and big oil puts on the proper preventive equipment, puts on the need manpower, the train cars - the 111's - are built to specs that are safe, that the train crossings are safer. You’re carrying time bombs. It’s a threat to our communities, our lives and our environment.”
“My name is Meredith Johnston . I live in Westport, NY. In 28 years I’ve witnessed two train derailments. One where the cars went down the banks of the Boquet River. And one where the engine kept going, but the cars were all going all over the place for about three miles. It is a real problem. It’s a problem for me, my community. Frankly it is scary. I think it should be stopped and an alternative route for Canadian Bakken oil should be found.”
“My name is Tim Truscott. I’m from Albany. I understand that the governor could order a summary abatement using Environmental Conservation Law Section 71-0301. He could stop this right now if he wanted to. He has failed us.”
The DEC is taking public comments until September 30th on Global Partners’ request to modify its permit, which would allow it to heat the oil products at the Port of Albany facility. Adirondack Mountain Club Executive Director Neil Woodworth said commenting is crucial if people are concerned about crude oil shipments. “The only thing they required Global to look at was within the four corners of the Port of Albany. It didn’t consider Lake Champlain. It didn’t consider all the other waterways across New York State and all the other people across New York State. You need to tell them to do a full Environmental Impact Statement that includes all the impacts in New York State. You really have a very critical role. Remember that Lake Champlain provides the drinking water for a quarter million of you. That’s reason enough.”
Earlier this week, Governor Cuomo acknowledged the trains are problematic and a safety issue but reiterated that the state cannot take any action inconsistent with federal regulations or impede federal commerce.