KINGSTON, N.Y. — In late 2011, freight trains in New York State began to carry a new kind of cargo, transporting a highly volatile form of crude oil extracted through hydraulic fracturing in the Bakken shale of North Dakota to East Coast refineries.
Each day, interspersed amongst the lines of graffitied boxcars, locomotives pulling dozens of identical, pill-shaped container cars rumble through the Hudson River Valley. “They pass through every hour or two. The noise, it’s constant. It shakes the house,” says Josefina Soriano of Kingston.
Railroad workers call them “bomb trains.” The crude oil being transported is particularly volatile, and the pitch-black colored container cars each hold 30,000 gallons of it, the equivalent of two million sticks of dynamite. The containers, known as DOT-111s, were not built to transport crude oil and are only designed to withstand punctures at up to 12 miles per hour. The typical speed limit on the rails is 50 mph.
In 2014, the same year Governor Andrew Cuomo caved to popular pressure and announced a ban on fracking in New York, an average of 4.2 million gallons of fracked-crude oil entered the Port of Albany everyday, according to an analysis of shipping data by Columbia University-trained geographer Stephen Shafer. (The New York Transportation Department does not provide figures.) The amount has decreased significantly since then, as oil prices have fallen, but that could change if the price rises.
“New York gets all the risk, and no benefit,” says Kate Hudson, director of Cross-Watershed Initiatives at Riverkeeper, a watchdog group dedicated to defending the Hudson River. “[The oil] is not a part of our economy, it is not creating jobs. It is just passing through.”
Protesting on the Railroad
On May 14, five arrests were made as thousands of protesters marched through the streets of Albany. Many sat down on the railroad tracks used to transport the oil.
The oil trains pass within 15 feet of the Ezra Prentice Homes, a public-housing development adjacent to the port that is home to over 400 people, including more than 200 children. Residents have complained of air pollution that causes nausea and asthma, and the potential long-term effects of being exposed to benzene, a known carcinogen that is present in oil vapors.
Activists also point to the risks of accidents. In July 2013, a train carrying fracked crude oil derailed and exploded in Lac Megantic, Quebec. It killed 47 people and dumped hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude oil into the local river. Since then, there have been 10 other accidents involving trains transporting crude oil in the U.S. and Canada, prompting evacuations and causing environmental damage.
The tracks and bridges the railroad cars travel on are privately owned and often poorly maintained. A 2014 WABC-TV investigation into a 15-mile stretch of railroad near Newburgh, operated by CSX, found “major cracks in foundations, holes in steel columns, and missing or loose bolts” in the overpasses.
The Federal Railroad Administration employs only one inspector to oversee rail bridges in 13 Northeastern states, including the 3,000 bridges in New York. Railroad operators are required to file a letter with state and federal transportation authorities once a year, asserting that they have inspected their bridges and found them to be safe.
“When was the last time that the airlines could inspect and certify the safety of their own airplanes?” asks Kate Hudson of Riverkeeper. “It is amazing that this industry is allowed the regulatory freedom that it is.”
The Hudson River has been used in the past to transport gasoline and home heating oil—already refined products—for regional consumption, but crude oil was not allowed on the river until 2011. Once the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) began issuing permits to shipping companies, the volume rapidly increased.
In December 2012 the Stena Primorsk became the first tanker to leave the Port of Albany with a load of crude oil. Carrying 12 million gallons, it promptly ran aground just six miles south of Albany, rupturing its outer hull. Had the ship’s inner hull ruptured as well, the area, a state-designated “significant habitat,” would have been devastated.
The Hudson, once synonymous with PCBs, Superfund sites, and extreme environmental degradation, has become a poster child for environmental recovery, due to decades of activism. Billions of dollars have been invested in cleaning up the river. It is now home to over 200 species of fish, including endangered species, and is the center of the valley region’s $4.7 billion tourism industry. It is also a source of drinking water for residents of Poughkeepsie, Highland, Port Ewen, Hyde Park and Rhinebeck.
Beginning in 2011, the organizations that spearheaded the river’s revival, including Riverkeeper, Scenic Hudson and the Sierra Club, began sounding the alarm about the risks of crude-oil transport.
Engines of Justice
The state government insists that it can’t regulate rail shipments of crude oil because it is pre-empted by federal railroad law, but there are areas where it has some authority. Environmentalists are using the courts, pressuring regulators, and passing local ordinances to force changes.
Attorneys with EarthJustice filed a federal lawsuit in February on behalf of environmental groups and residents of the Ezra Prentice Homes, accusing the Port of Albany oil terminal’s operator, Global Companies, of violating the Clean Air Act when it increased the volume of crude passing through the port by fivefold in 2012. The suit also alleges that Global failed to receive the requisite permits from the DEC for processing Bakken shale oil, which emits higher levels of volatile organic compounds than conventional oil.
EarthJustice has filed another suit in state court challenging the DEC’s decision to forgo an environmental-impact study when it reviewed Global’s application to begin processing heavy crude from the Alberta tar sands. Though the courts have not yet ruled on it, that suit, together with 19,000 public comments, has so far delayed the permitting process.
Riverkeeper, a plaintiff in both suits, is pushing for more inspections and repairs to rail infrastructure, as well as for making railroad reports publicly available. Ulster County Executive Mike Hein has proposed that the county hire an engineer to inspect railroad bridges, although that issue is complicated because they are considered the railroad companies’ private property.
Riverkeeper and others are also pushing to increase the amount of money in the state’s spill-response fund, which was originally set at $25 million in 1977. Gov. Andrew Cuomo bumped that up to $40 million last year. However, if the fund had kept up with inflation, it would hold $97 million today.
Ideally, advocates say, oil transporters and the railroads would pay for the costs of cleaning up spills. Riverkeeper is lobbying the state Legislature for a financial assurance bill, which would require companies that transport oil to demonstrate they have the financial resources to clean up in a “worst-case scenario.” In the Lac Megantic explosion, the company transporting the oil declared bankruptcy, and Canadian taxpayers were stuck footing the bill—which is expected to run as high as $2.7 billion over the coming years.
Meanwhile, the Sierra Club is working to improve rail-car safety regulations. In May 2015, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued new safety standards for crude-oil tank cars that include a 10-year phaseout of the cars currently used. The Sierra Club continues to call for an immediate ban on shipping crude oil by rail, citing the department’s projections that “15 derailments on mainline are likely every year.”
Several county legislatures and local governments in the Hudson Valley have passed resolutions against crude-oil transport. For now, the industry seems to have the upper hand, but memories of another longshot environmental campaign that ended in victory are still fresh in people’s memories.
Six years ago, Wes Gillingham of Catskill Mountainkeeper recalled at a public forum at Kingston City Hall on the crude-oil transports, he had “lots of conversations with experts, environmental leaders who have been in many fights over the years, saying, ‘There’s no way we can stop fracking. We just have to make sure it gets regulated as best we can.’ We proved that wrong.”