EVERY WEEK, reminders of the dangers of a failed energy policy rumble through the Adirondacks in the form of massive freight trains filled with oil.
Carrying as much as eighty-five thousand barrels of crude in a hundred tanker cars, the trains embody a nation’s thirst for petroleum, a thirst that remains unslaked even in the face of dire consequences, including pollution and climate change. For the communities through which they pass, the trains pose risks that are even more immediate: accidents that could be catastrophic to both human life and sensitive ecosystems. For this reason, the federal government should impose a moratorium on these shipments.
These trains travel more than one hundred miles through the Adirondack Park on a Canadian Pacific rail line that follows the western shore of Lake Champlain, often within yards of the water. They carry oil from the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota and other sources to Albany, from where it is shipped to refineries along the East Coast. An oil boom in North Dakota, powered by new technology like hydrofracking, is flooding the system with crude. Rail transport has been the means of shipping much of the oil. Trains carry forty times the amount of oil that they did six years ago.
More often than not, these freight trains are made up of tank cars that the federal government declared unsafe more than twenty years ago. The single-hulled tanker known as DOT-111 is vulnerable to punctures and spills that can lead to devastating fires. The best-known and most-tragic accident occurred last summer in Lac-Megantic, a community located less than two hundred miles from the Adirondacks in the Province of Quebec. There an unattended train rolled into the community, derailed, and ignited a firestorm that killed forty-seven people and reduced much of downtown to cinders.
Since then, derailing oil cars have visited destruction on numerous other communities. Federal statistics show that more crude was spilled in train accidents in 2013 than in the previous four decades combined.
Some recent disasters:
■ On April 30 this year, fifteen oil tankers derailed in Lynchburg, Virginia, setting off a massive fire and dumping crude into the James River, setting it ablaze;
■ In December 2013, eighteen tank cars derailed in North Dakota, spilling four hundred thousand gallons of oil and setting off a huge fire;
■ In November 2013, a train carrying 2.9 million gallons of crude oil derailed and burned in Alabama, contaminating a key waterway.
Local emergency responders in the Adirondacks, like elsewhere, say their options are limited in reacting to a serious derailment and oil-fueled fire. Response would likely come down to trying to get people out of a disaster zone rather than being able to fight the fire. “The only real effort you can make at that point is to have a real evacuation plan,” Moriah Supervisor Tom Scozzafava told the Explorer for an article in the May/June issue.
In lakeside communities with population centers right along the tracks and limited road networks, evacuation in the midst of a catastrophic accident would be hard to imagine. In some cases, boats might provide the only option.
And the tracks’ route along Lake Champlain’s shore compounds the environmental threat a spill would pose. A derailment would likely send oil into the lake waters that provide drinking water for human communities and are vital natural habitats. Tracks cross major waterways, including the Saranac, Ausable, and Boquet rivers as well as wetlands that could face irreparable injury from a major spill.
While the challenge of moving the country away from its dependence on fossil fuels may take decades, the hazards of this virtual oil pipeline must be addressed immediately. The first step is for Washington to place a moratorium on oil trains at least until the most glaring dangers are controlled.
The DOT-111 tankers must be taken out of service or retrofitted to a safer design. Government must toughen regulations safeguarding both human and environmental safety. All levels of government as well as the rail industry must have credible emergency-response plans capable of coping with “worst-case” fires and explosions. Recent experience makes it all too clear that “worst case” is a real and imminent possibility.
Some steps have already been taken:
■ Albany County Executive Dan McCoy imposed a moratorium on expansion of oil-processing facilities at the Port of Albany pending a review of health risks;
■ The Environmental Protection Agency has announced it will evaluate spill-response plans in New York State and develop plans for responding to the environmental impact of spills in specific areas;
■ Governor Andrew Cuomo has called on Washington to take immediate action to strengthen rail-safety regulations and environmental protections, including replacing or retrofitting DOT-111 tankers.
These are positive steps, and clearly the calamities we have witnessed in recent months have gotten authorities’ attention. But we still haven’t seen the kind of decisive, sweeping response from the federal government that this threat requires. Now is the time.
—Tom Woodman, Publisher