LOHR McKINSTRY and JOE LoTEMPLIO
PORT HENRY — Sen. Charles Schumer says a safety initiative between the U.S. Department of Transportation and American Association of Railroads doesn’t go far enough to protect northern New York against oil-tank car mishaps.
He wants the older DOT-111 tank cars, which more easily rupture in wrecks, phased out and railroad speed limits reduced from 50 to 40 mph in populous areas on the route that Canadian Pacific Railway trains take from the Canadian border to the Port of Albany and beyond.
Most of the oil is put on barges at the Port of Albany and transported to refineries farther south, although some continue by rail to refineries.
The shipper is Global Partners, which has a 2012 permit from the State Department of Environmental Conservation to transport 1.8 billion gallons of crude oil a year.
“There’s been a huge increase in the amount of oil passing through upstate New York,” Schumer said during a telephone press conference on Wednesday.
“It all must be done safely. But it seems every day, we hear of a derailment.”
‘PRONE TO RUPTURE’
Schumer (D-NY) noted there was a derailment of 80 empty oil cars on Tuesday near Kingston and one last month in North Dakota, where the oil originates.
The oil that’s being shipped in dozens of “unit trains” a month is Bakken Shale crude from North Dakota deposits.
That kind of oil exploded when a 72-car train derailed on July 6, 2013, in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing 47 people and destroying the town’s business district.
Schumer said about 70,000 of the DOT-111 tank cars are still in use.
“The DOT-111 cars are mainly owned by oil companies. They’re prone to rupture during derailments. It’s not a huge cost to retrofit them.”
SOME PHASED OUT
Schumer said Irving Oil of Canada has already voluntarily phased out use of the DOT-111 cars in favor of more-resilient tank cars.
“We need a plan to make things safe,” the senator said.
He called the DOT recommendations “a good first step,” but then said, “They don’t go far enough.”
Schumer is calling for the agreement to be amended to take the DOT-111 cars out of service by July 1 or have a plan by then to do so.
And he wants rail speed limits lowered for communities in all of upstate New York and the Hudson Valley where the oil trains pass through.
Clinton County Emergency Preparedness Director Eric Day says rail-car safety is constantly on his mind.
“We’ve had bad stuff coming through here for years, and we are always aware of it and train for it,” he said Wednesday.
In light of last year’s disasters, area emergency-response teams spent a week in 2013 conducting exercises specific to rail-car accidents.
The training was, in fact, Day said, sponsored by CP Rail and included dealing with several kinds of spills.
“I think we have gotten out ahead of this, and I feel comfortable where we stand today,” he said.
But even with extensive training, Day said, some disasters can be extremely difficult to handle. Oil fires, for instance, would probably have to be contained and left to burn out while the area is evacuated.
“None of us (area emergency response units) really have the resources to put out a large oil fire,” Day said.
“We are just not in that business.”
‘CAN ONLY HELP’
With that in mind, Day said, stricter safety regulations that political leaders are pushing for can only help.
“There has been a lot of reaction to the recent accidents, but we are always aware of potential rail disasters, and we will continue to train for them,” he said.
Clinton County Legislator Robert Hall (D-Area 10, City of Plattsburgh), who chairs the county’s Public Safety Committee, said more meetings will be held this year to discuss the topic.
“This was an issue when I was on the City (of Plattsburgh Common) Council (1986 to 1990), and it still is today,” he said.
“We need to know what is in these cars, and we will stay very much involved in this.”
Schumer said he also supports federal regulators who issued an emergency order Tuesday requiring more-stringent testing of crude oil before shipment by rail to determine how susceptible the cargo is to explosion or fire.
DOT-111 cars are not pressurized, unlike pressurized DOT-105 or DOT-112 cars, which have thicker shells and heads and are much less prone to breaching during a derailment, studies have shown.
The National Transportation Safety Board found that the heads and shells of older DOT-111 cars can almost always be expected to breach in derailments that involve pileups or multiple car-to-car accidents.
Schumer said that five years ago, about 31 oil cars a day were passing through upstate New York, and now there are 1,400 tank cars a day.
“We are transporting more of this crude oil by rail each day, not less.
“While we are thankful for the economic benefit that comes from increased commerce, the damage wrought by a just a single accident in a populated area could undo that benefit a thousandfold or more.”