River Journey: Learning About Albany’s Bomb Trains

Kevin Buckland Sep 4, 2014

Editor’s Note: On August 30, activists with Mare Liberum and began a two-week voyage down the Hudson River from Troy, N.Y. to New York City. They are traveling in boats made of paper mache and are slated to arrive in the city on September 13 in advance of the People’s Climate March. As their two-week journey unfolds, they will stop in 13 towns along a 160-mile path to lift up stories of community resistance to proposed fossil fuel infrastructure and efforts to build local resilience in the face of climate change.

The first thing you realize when you find yourself in a paper boat on a wild river, is that the situation is already wild enough that nothing else seems impossible.

We, as a global community, are in uncertain waters – waters that are warming and acidifying as we raise the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Our safe harbor becomes everyday more improbable. In these times, we are forced to cast away the story that is already written for a story we cannot yet imagine. Hope; and the courage to endeavor the impossible is our only real option – logic has failed us, so we try dreams.

There is a sparkle that emerges in people’s eyes when you tell them you are traveling to Manhattan on a paper canoe. It is a look of wonder in being given a space to believe what you want to believe, despite what logic tells you. It is this same playful willingness that will get us through the troubled times ahead.

The dominant logic of now tells us that hope is impossible: that constant growth towards apocalypse is inevitable; that no one can stop the train because no one is driving it. But remember that it is the tracks, not the driver, that control where a train goes; and it is the workers that lay the rails. A small change, a well placed nail, lures a train onto a slow curve to another track, onto another story.

A “Toxic Tour” of Albany

In Albany, the trains are explosive. We took a “toxic tour” of Albany and saw some of the 400 to 500 railcars with fracked Bakken Crude in their bellies. This crude releases volatile gases as the train winds its way from the wrecked fields of North Dakota to the Hudson. These are sealed containers; pressure builds. By the time these railcars reach Albany they are pressurized with explosive gas. Most of these railcars are not designed for pressurized cargo, and should not legally be carrying it. A rupture could set off a string of detonations, like that of Lac Megantic that took 47 lives in July of 2013. Here the blast radius extends past city hall – the state government might just end up detonating itself. There have already been two rail accidents in Albany.

We were joined by members of a local group of concerned citizens that have formed a group called “PAUSE” (People of Albany United for Safe Energy) and have been demanding these trains not pass through populated areas. Where the trains currently park, an explosion could mean 5,000 deaths. On the south end of the city, next to the Ezra Prentice Estates, the basketball court is separated from the railcars only by a chainlink fence. Children play there.

The threat of explosion isn’t the only danger these bomb trains bring. Yuri, a local geo-microbiologist, (with whom SeaChange will be taking water samples), told us that health impacts are already rising in this low-income minority community. The “sour crude” is unrefined, so the secret cocktails of destructive chemicals are still in the trains, these can include neurological disruptors and other things we are not allowed to know. A community member tells us, “The rail cars are painted black to hide the spills;” a disconcerting smell surrounds them. The community at Ezra Prentice Estates is already afflicted by the myriad of structural racism that plagues New York State, struggling to keep its youth from being stolen by New York’s privatized incarceration business. Now it deals with racialized environmental injustice. These rail cars loom over their future like life-sentences.

Thanks to good community organizing, these bomb trains are no longer just dark rumblings in the night, but instead have become the center of a local fight to keep New York truly frack-free, free not just from extraction but also from transportation. All over the state, pipelines and boilers are being planned and installed. To keep New York safe these must be stopped on all fronts. The Sane Energy Project is developing a mapping tool, launching next month, to help communities organize for sane energy solutions.

Meanwhile, corporations all across North America are scraping the bottom of the energy barrel, and corporations such as Global Partners is proposing to bring the dirtiest oil on the planet along the Hudson via a “virtual pipeline” of trains and boats. A crude oil heating facility has been proposed for Albany, to use fracked gas to turn the “sour crude” sweet, and get it onto barges towards New York, New Jersey, and the open ocean.

Hudson River at Risk

Whether it is refined or unrefined, floats or sinks: a spill of any of these concoctions would mean disaster for the Hudson. The oil that isn’t spilled and successfully burned means disaster for our atmosphere. This is a lose-lose situation for everyone including these corporations and their investors – we all share the same waters and atmosphere. The future of our planet depends on all of us keeping these dark parts of our earth in the ground and out of our air and water. There must be other stories besides destruction.

With our paper boats, we are exploring other narratives besides the explosive and corrosive future proposed by private corporate capital. After our toxic tour we visited the Radix Ecological Sustainability Center, a fifteen minute walk from where our paper boats landed. Scott showed us around the center  – an elegant greenhouse with sounds of babbling streams inside and perennial tomates suspended like chandeliers, which felt more like a jungle than a city. In the greenhouse and the lot that surrounds it, they are experimenting with deviant futures. The closed-loop aquaponic systems bring together bacteria, plants, fish, snails, and ducks to create mutually beneficial ecosystems. The fish eat the bugs, the fish poop provides nitrogen to the watercress, then the water loops back to be bio-remediated by a floating island of plants whose expansive root systems grows into the water like a flood. These non-linear systems are deft in their simplicity (especially compared with the 100+ chemicals used in fracking), and are designed to make urban food production accessible to more of us.

I left the Radix Center with a sparkle in my eye- the same look I see when I tell people of our journey. Tomorrow our paper boats will journey on again, towards Manhattan and a global mobilization for climate justice. There is no certainty we will get to our destination, but we must try.

This article originally appeared at

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