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A Hot Mess

Global Partners wants to expand the Albany port’s ability to move Bakken crude oil through the city, and locals fear for their safety

by Natasha Scully on January 30, 2014

 

In 1971, William Law moved his family to the New Hope Ezra Prentice homes in Albany. Despite the clanking sounds from the nearby railroad line that echo through some of the houses, for 43 years Law felt no reason to leave, until now.

Recently the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, New York state’s environmental protection and regulatory agency, heard Massachusetts-based Fortune 500 company Global Partners’ proposal to build a big boiler facility in the port to facilitate the more than 2.8 billion gallons of crude oil that were approved to come through the city of Albany by the DEC in 2011. The plan will require a building permit to construct the boiler, and many are calling for the state to conduct an environmental impact study first.

According to Roger Downs, conservation director for the Atlantic chapter of the Sierra Club, the amount of crude oil coming in and out of Albany is only expected to grow due to the new form of crude coming in from Alberta, Canada.

“There are two kinds of oil we are talking about here,” he said. “The almost 3 billion gallons of oil that will go through the port of Albany this year is Bakken crude that comes from North Dakota. They have known that the 111 rail trains transporting this oil has been defective since 1994, but they just haven’t had to transport this much oil.”

If the oil does makes its way across the country safely, it will have the consistency of road tar, and  before the Albany port can load the oil onto ships for transport, it will have to be heated up in boilers.

Given that in the past year alone more oil has spilled though rail accidents then in the previous 40 years combined, Ezra Prentice residents, such as Law, are concerned as they watch these trains coming in and out of their city.

Ezra Prentice residents are “not just going along in la la land,” said Carolyn McLaughlin, Albany Common Council president. “No, these people care about their community, they care about each other, and they care about what’s going on around them in the city of Albany.” That sentiment is why Common Council members, Ezra Prentice and other Albany residents, and concerned citizens gathered on Monday (Jan. 27) for a community informational meeting at 200 South Pearl St.

According to the Common Council’s First Ward representative, Dorcey Applyrs, the goals of the meeting were to “provide residents with information about the issue in layman’s terms, provide a platform for residents to discuss their concerns regarding the issue and listen to those concerns as well as solicit and compile questions and concerns that will be forwarded to both DEC and the planning board.”

Ambitious to reverse Global Partners’ application, which would bring in double the amount of oil and what many feel is a hazardous boiler to Albany’s port, council members and residents are working with environmental activists such as Downs, who reassured the community that there is hope.

“So often in a community like this it’s taken for granted,” said McLaughlin. “These are people and they should be treated just as any other neighborhood. If they lived in the Buckingham Pond area, if they lived on Shaker Ridge, something like this would not have gone on without every household getting a letter.”

“Fortunately, there is a policy with DEC, there is an environmental justice provision [CP29], which essentially states that there has to be a public-participation plan when they are siting anything near an environmental  justice area. They have to consult the community,” said Downs. “This provision was an obligation of the DEC to require Global to reach out to the public to engage a conversation, to talk about fears, to mitigate some of the harm they are going to be doing.”

Seeing the devastation that can occur from crude oil transportation, such as the recent rail train that blew up in Castleton, N.D. or the derailed cars in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, that left 47 dead and incinerated more than 30 homes, McLaughlin, Applyrs, and coulcil members Vivian Kornegay (Ward 2), Leah Golby (Ward 10), and Mark Robinson (Ward 5) are working with others in the community who are dedicated to making sure residents get a chance to say no to the hazardous materials being driven in to their neighborhood.

“There are tankers in front of the playground,” said Kornegay. “Community members can only assume oil is in them, but they have no idea what was in them, where they came from or why they were there. All they know is they wake up one morning and there they are.”

With the standard evacuation zone a mile and a half in size, Downs said, “Imagine trying to evacuate a half mile from the port of Albany. That would include the Empire State Plaza, the Capitol, federal court houses, homes for tens of thousands of people, and right here in the Ezra Prentice homes 25 feet away from the tracks.”

“We have seen a lot about explosions in various places,” said Law. “How has the city prepared in the event of an incident? Are there plans in place to handle those kinds of things? I’m not opposed to progress, but we need to do it cautiously we need to understand what’s going on in our neighborhood.”

Not only are Ezra Prentice residents concerned about an explosion, but they are also concerned with the pollutants the trains are releasing both in the air and in the water.

Thirty-five-year-old Mary Williams is one among many who can account for a previous leaking incident in the port. “We could barely come outside because it was stinking,” said Williams. “It was smelling like molasses.”

“If they can smell it in the wintertime with the windows and doors shut, what is that impact going to be in the summer time when it’s hot out,” asked Kornegay.

While many at the meeting wondered about the economic benefits of expanding crude oil operations at the port, the question of safety kept coming up. “You cannot put people in harm’s way for a business opportunity, that’s what I’m talking about here. It’s all about dollars but for us it’s all about lives,” said McLaughlin.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office announced on Wednesday (Jan. 29) the issuance of an executive order that directed state agencies to “do a top-to-bottom review of safety procedures and emergency response preparedness related to shipments of volatile crude oil from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota.” Executive Order No. 125 is aimed at the DEC, the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services, and the New York State Energy Research and Developmental Authority.