Railroad workers apparently call them “bomb trains”—those tank cars full of explosive crude oil from North Dakota that sit lined up in the middle of 787 and mere feet from homes, playgrounds, day care centers in Albany’s South End, not to mention at least passing through many, many other communities in the region.
Since I wrote about this earlier this month, there has been an explosion of activity and media coverage. Massive credit is due to the residents of Ezra Prentice Homes in the South End, and their elected officials for the press conference and community forum they held about their concerns over the past week, and the newly forming group People of Albany United for Safe Energy that is working to gather information and strategize responses (next meeting tonight, Thursday, 5:30 PM, Citizen Action, 94 Central Ave., Albany).
I’m not going to try to summarize all of the details in this space; Scott Waldman at Capital New York and other local media are doing a better job covering it than a biweekly opinion columnist ever could, though it’s clearly a topic ripe for a lot more digging.
The good news is, the outrage is having some effect: the comment period has been extended a second time, to April 2, and DEC will hold a public forum on Feb. 12, 6 PM at Giffen Elementary School (274 S Pearl St., Albany). The Albany Planning Board has said it won’t approve permits until after the comment period closes. Albany County and a number of local municipalities have followed Albany’s lead in speaking out to the state on the need for more time, more scrutiny, and more transparency. New recommendations from the federal government say the tank cars being used should be phased out and this explosive oil should not be routed through populated areas at all. For such a short time to respond, this is good news.
But let no one confuse this with a win. A delay was crucial because it allows time for the hard work to get started—it allows the environmental lawyers time to put their legal briefs together, but it also allows time for everyone along this rail line to show this video to everyone they know, and start organizing within whatever organizations they are a part of—neighborhood groups, churches, political committees—to build the kind of will it will take to resist this.
Because the companies involved are not going to give up quietly or act ethically when simply prodded a little. Oil companies have consistently been denying that their product or its transport is unsafe, that their pipelines leak, or that they bear any liability for the destruction caused by spills and explosions. These are, at base, companies whose profits and very business model rely on doing something that must not be done, period, if we want to keep from causing unimaginable damage to the climate and the world we’re leaving to our children—which is, of course, continue to extract and burn these ever-harder to reach, ever-dirtier fossil fuels.
They are not going to go down without a fight. One news report called this a game of Whack a Mole, and that’s what it is. Raising our ability to respond to accidents is good, but not enough. Until we stop production, they will continue to find ways to transport it, whether it is a leaky, unsafe pipeline, or corroded explosive rail cars, or barges and tankers on our sensitive waterways. They will try to play opposition to the pipelines and concern about the danger from rail cars against each other, saying, “If you’d just let us have Keystone XL we wouldn’t send outdated unsafe trains full of explosive material through your cities.” We can’t let ourselves be divided that way—neither outcome is acceptable.
Routing “bomb trains” to less populated areas will be less risky in terms of sheer numbers of lives put at risk in the short term, but as long as fracked oil and tar-sand oil continue to flow, it won’t be victory. It will still be endangering residents, railroad workers, ecosystems, and livelihoods all along its route, and the climate everywhere.
This doesn’t mean this fight is pointless. Quite the opposite. It’s one crucial part of a larger fight, and it should give us openings to build relationships and power for proactive work to turn, for example, New York’s Energy Plan from fracked gas and toward renewables.
It does means we’ll need more than the usual suspects involved—it will take coalitions of organizations and networks working together as peers, respecting and making space for newcomers and community leaders from affected areas alongside the environmental lawyers and seasoned advocates. They did it in California in 2010 to beat back a Big Oil-sponsored referendum. We can do it here.