On Dec. 5, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the introduction of 24 emergency spill response trailers to be placed all over New York State, including one in Albany.
According to the press release, “each trailer is equipped with absorbent material, booms, and other tools necessary to control and contain a crude oil or petroleum spill. The trailers can be quickly deployed to address spill emergencies and help control and limit any resulting environmental impacts.”
The introduction of the emergency trailers, as well as regular oil car inspections, is part of Gov. Cuomo’s 2014 Executive Order 125 implementing a dozen government recommendations for oil spill prevention after a 2013 rise in out-of-state disasters such as the derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Québec, which caused 47 deaths. According to data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, more than 1.15 million gallons of crude oil was spilled from rail cars that year, more than the total amount spilled by railroads from 1975 to 2012.
As of October 2016, the New York State Department of Transportation (DOT) and sanctioned federal partners have inspected 13,135 rail cars, consisting of 11,127 crude oil tank cars traveling 5,184 miles of track. This is the latest number of inspections since the campaign was initiated in February 2014. Since then, they have uncovered 1,778 defects, and issued 24 hazardous materials violations. To manage all of this, Cuomo’s Oil Spill Fund cap increased to $40 million in the 2015-16 state budget from its previous $25 million. This includes a $2.1 million annual allowance for prevention and preparation measures.
Each New York State government website addressing public and environmental protection boasts that under Gov. Cuomo, New York has become the “most aggressive state in the nation in pursuing action” in regards to crude oil. The improvements in oil rail regulations certainly have a positive effect on future environmental conservation as oil businesses grow.
But local officials still don’t see their citizens being protected.
According to the South End Improvement Corporation (SEIC) executive director Cynthia Herbach, there is a bigger picture when it comes to crude oil transportation in Albany. While the new trailers exhibit a positive advancement in safety measures, there is a bigger threat to the Albany citizens of the South End, specifically in the Ezra Prentice Homes neighboring the railway.
Along the rails bordering the Hudson River, hundreds giant black tubes of oil cars link together alongside Interstate 787 and continue on in separate sections, like giant stretching snakes. Outside of Ezra Prentice community entrance, along buildings 630, 632 and 634, they sit on the tracks. A children’s playground on the other side of the railway fence, empty for the day, only gives the whole scene a more of a ominous feel as the industrial tanks lay feet away from local apartments, only a scarce bit of woodlands separating the trains from the homes.
“If Gov. Cuomo wants to put in emergency spill trailers, that’s fine for spills but that’s not going to help the people suffering on a daily basis. If [an oil car] blows up, how would that help? It doesn’t help the day-to-day health issues that people are suffering. It’s unreasonable. These trains are parked maybe 50 feet from people’s living rooms. They either need to move the trains or move the people,” said Herbarch.
After a series of public complaints about the South End air quality in 2014, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) completed a series of air quality screenings over a year, finding that the levels of benzene in the area are significantly higher than upstate counterparts.
“With the train yard [in Albany], they empty the oil right at the port and leave the tops open and those fumes are permeating the neighborhoods. The people are significantly, adversely affected health-wise. The trains are located in a hollow there by the river where there’s no airflow,” Herbach said.
In a September 2016 letter concerning the permit renewal for the Global Partners oil company use of the Port of Albany, the DEC addressed the carcinogenic air quality findings in a series of conditions to Global’s property use should they wish to continue operating in the future.
“The DEC has announced plans for a systematic monitoring effort in 2017 to more fully assess the sources of benzene in the neighborhood of the Ezra Prentice Homes. Global must address what measures it intends to take to limit, to the maximum extent practicable, any benzene emissions attributable to the facility.”
Since the letter, the DEC has not announced when they plan to start the air quality study, but local community advocacy groups fully intend to hold them to their word.
“I’ve been here for fifteen years,” Executive Director Willie White of A Village said. “When you live and eat and breathe in this community, you have a different perspective . . . it’s time to start holding people accountable.”
Leaders like White and Herbach head two of the many Albany community groups who have spent the past three years addressing the effects of crude oil on public health and pushing for legislative action. They have spent time in monthly meetings together working toward definitive goals to protect their residents. This includes calling for CSXT railroad—responsible for the cars once they are on the railway tracks—to move the oil cars from the rails close to residents to the rail yards further into the port. They are also fighting with the DEC against Global’s oil heating facility plan—which would enable the company to move massive amounts of heavy and extremely polluting tar sands oil that needs to be heated throughout winter months, promoting DEC led comprehensive air quality and health studies, and ultimately working towards removing the community from the compromised area.
The Alt reached out to Global Co. for comment on their presence and environmental effect on the Albany area but did not receive comment by deadline from the Albany or Massachusetts based corporate office and received no future correspondence, a wall commonly reached by the Albany community.
“We met with [Global representatives] a few weeks ago,” AVillage secretary Thomas McPheeters said. “We gave them our ‘asks’ but we still haven’t gotten any answers.”
The organizations have spent the last three years holding special appointments with the DEC, the DOT, the Port of Albany, as well as Global Co. Some consequential action against air contamination has been taken, including the $145,000 fine for air permit violations imposed on Buckeye Albany Terminal, LLC, another oil operation.
During the May 2014 DEC and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) inspection of the ethanol storage tanks at the Port of Albany, inspectors discovered the tank’s vapor combustion unit, an air pollution control device, was dysfunctional. According to the DEC report, the unit controls hydrocarbon emissions by heating vapors to high temperatures, breaking them down into carbon dioxide and water, but Buckeye failed to supplement the broken unit with natural gas, which is necessary to break down hydrocarbons. Now the company must fund an environmental benefit project for the community. However, these kinds of damages cannot be undone. Even if the advocacy groups continue to meet with government organizations in 2017, the people are living in an area that threatens their safety and long-term health on a daily basis.
“It still leaves 400 people breathing toxic air everyday. This is not a place for human habitation,” White says.
Just last year, AVillage Inc. joined with the Radix Center to compile a health survey of residents living in Ezra Prentice, the Albany Housing Authority’s project development in the South End. In the data collected, 196 residents in 77 households reported cases of asthma, COPD and other respiratory illnesses as well as skin issues and high blood pressure. Though the study did not determine them as the sole respiratory irritant, the organizations account these health issues to the crude oil trains and hundreds of diesel trucks driving to and from the Port of Albany via South Pearl Street daily. (Not to mention I-787 traffic adjacent to the Ezra Prentice developments and the nearby county sewage treatment plant.)
Resident outreach workers (ROW) completed the study by going door-to-door in the 179-unit Ezra Prentice community. The outreach workers aim to inform and engage their neighbors about the health issues at stake for their friends and family in the hopes that a more unified community will offer a front that can no longer be ignored by legislators and government organizations capable of action. Ezra Prentice resident Kristina Fisher has lived in the community for three years now. While she has not reported any health issues, she is constantly aware of the crude oil presence in her backyard and recently became a ROW.
“You can hear them crashing into each other,” she said about the oil cars making their way into the port. This kind of noise is not only disturbing to community life, but can be frightening.
“Members of the public who reside in the Ezra Prentice Homes have submitted complaints of substantial noise from Global’s operations at all hours, interfering with their sleep and causing distress,” the DEC letter to Global reads. The Albany County Department of Health has considered this a public health nuisance, calling for Global to limit train operations at night.
Oil car derailments happen without warning, and while Gov. Cuomo’s new emergency response trailers can combat resulting spills, risk or fire or explosion is still a looming and detrimental possibility. Additionally, Cuomo has not released information about where the trailer in Albany will be placed, or how mobile it will be.
The Alt reached out to the New York State Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Services as well as the governor’s press office to discuss this over the course of three days, but received no further information.
While it is good that Gov. Cuomo and the various state departments are thinking of safety measures when it comes to oil spills, some feel that the announcement of the trailers is an easy way to distract. “You can put a fire extinguisher in a kitchen, but if you’re using the kitchen to cook [drugs] on the stovetop—sure, the house won’t catch fire because you have the fire extinguisher, but the air is still filled with toxic fumes and everyone in the house is still breathing them in,” Herbach explained.
Gov. Cuomo’s Monday announcement followed the environmental protest victory in North Dakota this past weekend as U.S. Army Corps of Engineers put a stop to plans for the Dakota Access Pipeline that would have burrowed under the Missouri River, damaging sacred Sioux land and potentially causing irreparable harm to the local water source. Ezra Prentice resident Lawrence Clark Jr. took the opportunity to point out the powerful recent protest movement in his neighborhood meeting this week.
“We’re in the state of New York and we are in the capital and it’s happening right here,” he said, folding his hands in frustration.
Rev. Peter Cook, sitting in on the meeting to offer local community support from the NYS Council of Churches agreed.
“This is our Standing Rock.”