In 2012, Global Partners, an oil services company located in Massachusetts, received a permit from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) allowing it to bring up to 1.8 billion gallons of crude oil a year into the Port of Albany. According to Global Partners’ application, this operation would “provide environmental benefits to the surrounding community” due to an expected reduction in truck traffic as the oil would be arriving by rail. This permit was approved without a single public comment during the 30-day public-comment period.
In contrast, once the public learned of the current permit application by Global Partners to build a heating facility to allow it to process tar-sands oil at its Albany location, the opposition has been loud and steady. And a common question is, How was it possible for no one in Albany to have known about the earlier developments at the Port of Albany?
Documents pertaining to the 2012 permit approvals for Global Partners, recently obtained from the DEC via a Freedom of Information Law request, reveal that there was a single person from the city of Albany copied on the “Notice of Completed Application” for the permit to allow Global to bring 1.8 billion gallons of oil a year into the Port of Albany. This letter was sent from the DEC to Global Partners, marking the beginning of the public-comment period. The one local name on the cc list was Albany’s then-Mayor Gerald Jennings.
But Jennings did not issue any notice to the public at the time. Nor did he request that the DEC hold a public hearing on the matter. So, after the 30-day public comment period ended with no comments or public-hearing requests, the DEC approved Global’s permit.
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Mayor Jennings’ involvement and knowledge of the project would appear to be supported by a letter sent to the DEC last month by the law firm Young/Sommer LLC on Global’s behalf. The letter states that the “Department [DEC] and the City of Albany were fully involved in the conversion of Kenwood Yard to its current existing use.”
Additionally, in a letter to the DEC from the engineering firm Ingalls, regarding Global’s 2012 permit modification to allow the 1.8 billion gallons of oil a year, Ingalls indicated that it would need to get a permit from the City of Albany to install the new air handling unit required to process the crude oil and that they expected it to be approved as the city had approved the installation of a similar unit before.
Later, the same letter states: “Building permits, including floodplain review by the City of Albany, will be attained as necessary.”
Current Mayor Kathy Sheehan says that she can understand how a notification from DEC might not raise any alarms.
“I can say as mayor we get a lot of paper across our desk, and when you are copied on a document, I don’t know that that is enough to alert you to the fact that something important and transformative is happening,” Sheehan says. “And that is why having a stronger partnership with the DEC, and having someone who can follow up with a phone call and say, ‘What does this really mean?’ is really important.”
When asked how her administration would handle a similar situation, Sheehan is adamant in her response.
“This will never happen again,” she says. “Never say never, but it’s a new day. Our role should be to engage the public and understand what the issue is.”
But it did happen before, without the public having any idea about Albany’s transformation into what local activists are now calling “Houston on the Hudson.”
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The oil-train explosion in Quebec last July that killed 47 people raised awareness of the dangers inherent in shipping volatile crude oil by rail. And when Global Partners’ more recent permit application came to light, local residents were ready to be galvanized.
On Feb. 12, 2014, at Giffen Memorial Elementary School, an informational meeting was finally held regarding the oil operations at the Port of Albany. The meeting was organized by the DEC, and it marked the first time a representative of Global Partners appeared before a collection of Albany’s residents who had in recent weeks expressed strong concerns about the safety of the oil that was coming into the port and the plans for a new boiler facility to heat tar-sands oil.
Judging by the number of DEC officers in attendance—carrying firearms and wearing body armor—it would seem that the DEC wasn’t expecting a warm reception. They were correct. The approximately 200 people who came to the meeting were angry, and speaker after speaker wanted answers about the risks this oil posed, and they wanted to know how Albany had become a major distribution hub for Bakken crude oil without them knowing.
When Albany Common Council President Carolyn McLaughlin addressed the crowd and the moderators, her opening statement was directed at the representatives from the DEC.
“You let us down,” McLaughlin said. “I believe DEC let us down and let the South End community down by not having a conversation with us about this, not this year, but two years ago.”
Dominick Calsalaro has been a longtime advocate for environmental and safety issues, especially during his 12 years as an Albany Common Council member. He has said that the council had no knowledge of the transformation of the Albany port into one of the East Coast’s major oil distribution hubs, and that he learned about this reality “like everyone else, by reading the newspaper.”
Calsalaro is no stranger to the issue: In 2007 he introduced an ordinance to amend the city code that specifically dealt with the transportation of hazardous materials through the city of Albany by rail.
Like Albany residents, who are now aware of, and raising their voices in opposition to, crude being processed at the port of Albany, many other communities across the country had no idea that crude oil was being transported through their towns.
In Washington state, there are several oil-by-rail terminals in operation. However, the latest planned facility is facing opposition from the public. Terry Wechsler, an environmental attorney, recently told Reuters, “There was no opposition to the other three proposals only because we weren’t aware they were in formal permitting.”
When members of the public learn about these projects they become involved. The DEC did not respond to repeated requests regarding its protocol for who is to be notified—and how—when permits are complete and the public-comment period begins.
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As opposition to the oil-by-rail issue in Albany has grown over the past six months, some patterns have emerged. The effort to get answers and calls for safety have been led by strong women. Sandy Steubing and Susan Weber of People of Albany for Sustainable Energy (PAUSE) are quick to step to any microphone and voice their opinion. City council members Dorcey Applyrs and Vivian Kornegay are directly involved with this issue as they represent the communities closest to the Port of Albany.
When told of the DEC’s communications that included former Mayor Jennings and Young/Sommer’s assertion that the City of Albany had been “fully involved in the conversion of Kenwood Yard to its current existing use,” Steubing doesn’t mince words: “It’s corrupt and scandalous that the DEC and Jennings exposed the city to such health and safety risks without a thorough public debate.”
In addition to the efforts of PAUSE and many other groups rallying around this issue, one constant over the past six months has been Charlene Benton, president of the Ezra Prentice Homes Tenants Association.
If you attend a meeting on this issue, at some point you are likely to see Benton roll her wheelchair up to the microphone and, in her hushed tone, demand answers. While there are plenty of fired-up activists on this issue, Benton isn’t one. She will quietly ask the DEC and Global why they won’t respond to her questions, as she did at a meeting at the Albany Housing Authority in May where the DEC, Albany Sheriff Craig Apple and members of the Albany Fire Department made presentations on Albany’s preparedness to respond to oil accidents.
“This started back in January, late December, and I know its going to be a process but we’ve been going around and around,” Benton said when addressing the speakers. “We haven’t seen a written evacuation plan, giving people some instructions. . . . My concern is, how much longer is it going to take for someone to step in and protect us?”
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The public opposition to the oil-by-rail operations at Albany by groups like PAUSE and the residents of Ezra Prentice has certainly led to local officials paying very close attention to this issue now.
However, since the DEC has already approved the permits to move the crude oil into Albany and has issued a “negative declaration” on the current permit application requesting permission to add an oil heating facility at the Port of Albany, this has become uncharted territory for those involved.
In March, Albany County Executive Dan McCoy issued an executive order addressing the pending permit by Global citing concerns that the heating of crude oil could create a “condition detrimental to the public health and safety of the residents of Albany County” and instituting a moratorium on the expansion of the processing of crude oil at the Port of Albany until a comprehensive health review could be completed. Global responded with a letter to the county saying the moratorium had no legal basis and that it was “ill advised, unnecessary, unlawful and prejudicial to the company. It has no legal basis.”
Also in March, the DEC sent a letter to Global Partners with a list of 29 questions about its operations at the Port of Albany, and informed Global that the department considered its negative declaration regarding the environmental impact of the boiler project as an “interim review subject to final future determination.” Global’s response to these questions, submitted on May 15 by the law firm Young/Sommer, stated that “there is no such thing as an “Interim Negative Declaration” under SEQRA, and that the reference to an “Interim Negative Declaration” has no “legal meaning.”
The DEC has also begun an air sampling program at the Port of Albany. In Young/Sommer’s May 15 letter, they comment on this air sampling program, stating “Global is uncertain of the conclusions to be drawn from a regional air survey but notes that such data will provide no scientifically valid data as to Global’s terminal operations.”
While Global’s lawyers may argue that air sampling will not provide scientifically valid data, a recent letter from the Environmental Protection Agency to the DEC takes a different approach. The EPA explains the purpose of its letter to the DEC:
“EPA has the following comments on the draft permit. We provide these comments to help ensure that the facility meets the federal Clean Air Act (CAA) requirements, that the permit will provide necessary information so that the basis of the permìt decision is transparent and readily accessible to the public, and the permit record provides adequate support for the permit decision.”
In the letter, the EPA includes a list of requests and recommendations regarding Global’s current permit application, including that the DEC consider incorporating “Next Generation Monitoring” into the revised Title V permit. The letter lists the components of Next Generation Monitoring, including the use of infrared cameras to detect volatile organic compounds, diffusion tube sampling to detect toxic air compounds, and fence-line monitoring to detect volatile organic compounds and toxic air compounds.
The last element of Next Generation Monitoring that the EPA recommends isn’t a new technology, and—up to this point—it is one that local activists are likely to agree hasn’t been in use. The agency recommends the “use of transparency to provide for public access to monitoring data and reports prepared by the facility.”
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With safety issues regarding the transportation of oil by rail being under federal jurisdiction, air quality is one of the few issues where there is some local control. County Executive McCoy has recently said he may use seizure funds to support safety efforts such as air monitoring. In addition to the moratorium and health review, McCoy has appointed Peter Iwanowicz as chairman of an expert advisory committee that is tasked with investigating the impacts of the crude oil operations in Albany. Peter Iwanowicz is currently the executive director of Environmental Advocates of New York.
Iwanowicz responded to Metroland’s questions about the Expert Advisory Committee via e-mail, saying that there was “no timetable for when we will finish, since we are just now getting started. We have some discussions happening this week in Washington, D.C., and we have a meeting set up with EPA Regional Office in NYC next week. Air monitoring and other environmental impacts will be discussed.”
Mayor Sheehan said she certainly thinks the EPA’s recommendations for monitoring should be considered but says, “One of the things I think is critically important is that the industry bear the cost.”
But the DEC isn’t going after the industry for potential costs. Last week, the DEC’s top lawyer, Edward McTiernan, sent a letter to Earthjustice, a group working with the residents of Ezra Prentice, that is planning to file a lawsuit on their behalf challenging the DEC’s decision to not complete a full environmental review for Global’s latest permit application. In the letter, McTiernan informed Earthjustice that any lawsuit would be considered “frivolous” and that the DEC would be seeking to collect legal fees from them for any potential lawsuit. So, instead of providing the residents of Ezra Prentice with answers, the DEC is telling Charlene Benton and the residents of Ezra Prentice to back down. Charlene was not impressed.
“We don’t understand why the DEC is threatening us instead of doing the right thing and requiring Global to prepare an environmental impact statement,” said Benson in a statement. “We are entitled to our day in court just like anyone else. Shame on Governor Cuomo and the DEC for attempting to bully the community into silence.”
On the fences surrounding Kenwood Yard at the Port of Albany, where much of the time there are tank cars filled with explosive Bakken crude oil, there are multiple signs advising people to “Think First.” But if you move a bit farther down the rail yard to where it borders the Ezra Prentice apartments, they haven’t posted these signs—but it is unlikely they would need to. Unlike the employees at Kenwood Yard, who live nowhere near the tracks filled with tank cars of Bakken crude oil, the residents of Ezra Prentice don’t need a reminder to think about the explosive contents of the cars. The reminder is always there, right behind their homes.
The residents of Ezra Prentice and others in Albany would have eagerly been part of the conversation about allowing Albany to become a major oil distribution hub, and would have asked those in authority to “think first” before moving forward on such a project. But they never had a chance, because while the DEC, Global and the City of Albany were having that conversation, it never included the public.
Justin Mikulka is a freelance writer and audio and video producer living in Albany.
Update: We changed the headline.