NYS Comptroller Calls For More Safety Measures After Newburgh Train Derailment

Apr 11, 2017

In a month’s time, there have been two near misses concerning the transport of hazardous materials through the Hudson Valley. One was a freight train derailment in Newburgh along the Hudson River. The other: a barge that ran aground in the Hudson River near Catskill. Following the Newburgh incident, the New York state comptroller penned a letter to the federal transportation secretary with his concerns.

In light of the March 7 CSX train derailment in Newburgh, state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli wrote to U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao requesting that she consider additional safety measures to reduce risks and protect New Yorkers from the transport of crude oil and any hazardous materials by rail. Here’s First Deputy Comptroller Pete Grannis.

“So luckily nothing happened there but it was a reminder again that while the federal government has done some things to protect people and communities and the environment from accidents by petroleum-carrying trains, and the state has done something, clearly more needs to be done — upgrade crossings and a host of other areas and, most importantly to make sure that these carriers have enough insurance to deal with the problems when and if they were to occur,” Grannis says. “And the accident on the Hudson River was a little different, obviously a barge carrying fuel oil up the Hudson, some guy, but it’s a  reminder that, in the best of circumstances, things happen.”

The barge that ran aground April 4 near Catskill was carrying 2.5 million gallons of gasoline and there were no leaks. Meanwhile, DiNapoli’s letter prompted by the Newburgh derailment follows an April 2016 letter he sent to then Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, urging that he consider additional safety measures surrounding primarily crude oil. Hayley Carlock is Scenic Hudson’s director of environmental advocacy and speaks to the close calls.

“It’s another one of those near misses that we’ve seen all too often in the Hudson Valley, especially since the huge uptick in the transport of crude oil started in 2011/2012. It’s just a matter of time before it’s not a near miss and something bad happens, so we need to take action now,” Carlock says. “In the case of Newburgh, we had a derailment of a train that was carrying   hazardous materials, including sulfuric acid, some really nasty stuff. It derailed right along the river and right next to a major oil terminal.”

The comptroller has a number of concerns. First, says Grannis:

“The comptroller is the fiduciary for the New York state pension fund and so that is the major holder of stock in Canadian Pacific, CSX and the other railroad,” says Grannis.

Plus, says, Grannis, the comptroller has another role.

“He also manages the oil spill fund, the state’s oil spill fund, which is the backup fund to provide cleanup costs and compensate people for damages if a carrier can’t or won’t or is unable to pay for the costs. After that, the state’s fund is capped at $40 million,” Grannis says. “The expectation is that some of these catastrophic accidents are going to cost a great deal more than that, and that’s where the state has to step in.”

Grannis says, so far, there is no word from Secretary Chao.

“Well, obviously the asks that the comptroller included in both letters are not that great. The biggest one happens to be insurance and, interestingly enough, after the first letter, I think Secretary Foxx directed that a study be prepared that’s supposed to be released this month, as a matter of fact, talking about insurance coverage for the various carriers. And it’s not just the carriers, it’s the people that put the material, whatever it is, on the trains to make sure the trains are safe, it’s people that run the trains to make sure the train tracks are safe.”

Meanwhile, news of the barge accident prompted Poughkeepsie-based Scenic Hudson to renew its call for the U.S. Coast Guard to abandon its proposal to create up to 10 anchorage sites in the Hudson River to park as many as 43 commercial vessels between Yonkers and Kingston. Again, Carlock.

“I think it’s a clear warning that we need to have safer transport of crude oil and petroleum and all hazardous materials on and along the river,” Carlock says. “In that case, thankfully, nothing was spilled. It was a double-hulled barge and the hull was not breached. But there were 65,000 barrels of gasoline on the barge that could have easily been spilled.”

She says the Coast Guard plan would facilitate the transport of crude oil and other hazardous materials along the river.

“The time to take action and to make sure that everything is a safe as possible is now before we have an incident,” Carlock says. “We can’t wait until we have something like the Lac-Mégantic incident in Canada.

She refers to the deadly oil train derailment in Quebec in July 2013, which Comptroller DiNapoli also referred to in his April 2016 letter. In his recent letter, DiNapoli says the potential for accidents involving trains transporting crude oil or other hazardous materials continues to threaten New York’s communities, environment, and the financial resources of the state and its local governments.