The Albany, N.Y., oil train: A ticking time bomb
Albany, N.Y. — Thirteen oil-filled tanker rail cars derailed on Feb. 28 at the sprawling CSX rail yard in Selkirk, N.Y., just eight miles from Albany. They were part of a 110-car shipment of highly flammable Bakken oil from North Dakota, on its way to Philadelphia.
Each tank car contained almost 30,000 gallons of highly volatile crude oil. Many of these cars, designated DOT-111, had already been deemed by regulators and inspectors as rupture-prone and unsafe to carry volatile chemicals. Fortunately, none of the tank cars in Selkirk ruptured and there was no explosion — this time.
CSX was fined a paltry $5,000 for not notifying federal officials within the required one hour.
The Selkirk facility is the biggest CSX rail yard in the country. It handles up to 3,200 rail cars a day for up to 70 different destinations.
CSX advertises itself as one of the biggest shippers of fertilizer in the country — more than 500,000 train carloads a year. It is more than possible that train cars full of fertilizer and other dangerous chemicals were in the same yard as the derailed oil train.
Right-wing racist Timothy McVeigh used just one truckload of oil and fertilizer to demolish the Mura Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people.
In 1947, a shipload of fertilizer caught fire in the harbor of Texas City, Texas. An hour later, the ship exploded, flattening 20 city blocks. The blast could be heard for 160 miles and shattered every window in Texas City and half the windows in Galveston, 10 miles away.
Another ship in the harbor, also laden with fertilizer, caught fire from the original blast and blew up the next day. The two explosions killed more than 500 and injured at least 3,500. Fifteen hundred buildings were destroyed and more than 2,000 people rendered homeless. (www.wired.com)
Oil train derailments and explosions are occurring at a quickening pace. Last July, a derailment and explosion of cars carrying Bakken oil, which is lighter and much more volatile than other crudes, killed 47 people in the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic. Much of the town was incinerated when 1.5 million gallons of oil spilled, some into a nearby lake. The railroad involved went bankrupt from the avalanche of lawsuits.
Investigators found that the oil had been mislabeled by the railroad as regular crude. It was far too dangerous to be transported in the puncture-prone DOT-111 cars used. (bangordailynews.com) Now Albany has become the new oil train hub and the derailment here involved the same type of tanker cars.
Since the Quebec disaster, fiery derailments of oil trains have occurred in Alabama, North Dakota and New Brunswick, Canada.
Upsurge of oil shipments
Earlier this year, two empty CSX oil cars went off the tracks near Kingston, N.Y. Government officials were not notified at all. They said they found out about it by reading news accounts the next day.
Very little oil was shipped through Albany until late 2011, when a vast upsurge of oil shipments from the Bakken region of North Dakota began. Now over a billion gallons of oil a year are sent by rail or barge from Albany down the Hudson River to refineries in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and elsewhere. More goes to a refinery in St. John’s, New Brunswick, that has a deep water port for supertankers.
New permits will allow an increase to 2.8 billion gallons a year through Albany. (www.biologicaldiversity.org)
From I-787 in downtown Albany, one can see long rows of DOT-111 rail cars parked between the north and southbound lanes and also alongside the highway, just blocks from a state office building with thousands of workers.
These companies want to add shipments of tar sand oil from Alberta, Canada. Global Partners, an oil storage and shipping company, has applied for a permit to install seven oil heating units on the Albany-Hudson River shoreline, to ease the task of transferring the oil from rail cars to barges and tanker ships.
This has alarmed many in the environmental community. On Feb. 19, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a formal notice of intent to sue both the U.S. Coast Guard and Environmental Protection Agency “for failing to update oil spill plans.” The notice points out that these two agencies have not changed any protocols in case of a spill since the oil transport boom began.
The notice explains that tar sand oil is costly and dangerous to the river’s aquatic life. “A 2010 spill of tar sands in the Kalamazoo River in Michigan has cost nearly $1 billion to remove and the cleanup is still not complete,” the notice states. “Dredging — which has been done in the Kalamazoo River — could be particularly harmful to fish and other wildlife in the Hudson.”
In January, at a public meeting in Albany, hundreds of residents voiced their opposition to Global Partners’ plans, which are driven by profits.
These vast strings of oil trains pass through major cities — Chicago, Detroit, Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and more — on their way to Albany. The accidents and derailments have begun to alarm normally enthusiastic pro-big-business politicians.
After the Selkirk derailment, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo wrote a letter to federal Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx saying he was “deeply troubled” by the derailments. Even this best friend of Wall Street must be aware that rows of oil tanker cars pass within blocks of the state Capitol. New York Sen. Charles Schumer called the situation a “ticking time bomb.”
Much of this danger can be laid at the feet of multibillionaire and corporate media darling Warren Buffett.
A Sightline Institute article points out: “Most people don’t realize it, but the tank cars that carry crude oil are not owned by the railroads that run them and only rarely owned by the shippers who use them. In fact, roughly 80 percent of all tank cars registered in North America are owned by companies that lease tank cars to shippers.
“These lessors … are the ones ultimately responsible for the fact that the vast majority of oil trains are largely composed of older models so riddled with obvious flaws that federal safety investigators have for years urged the entire fleet be retrofitted. …
“Not only have they avoided pulling the hazardous DOT-111 tank cars out of service to retrofit them, but they have opposed and delayed meaningful federal regulation at every turn.” (www.grist.org)
And who is the biggest player in the oil tank car leasing business? That would be Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway investment group, which owns 40 percent of the market and is also the full owner of the BSNF Railway Co. BSNF is the biggest shipper of Bakken fields’ oil.
This kind of banking and corporate power has completely overmatched federal, state and local government safety measures. Only a militant struggle by workers and communities can defeat this grave threat to lives and the environment.