Oil trains raise safety, environmental concerns

(Photo by Will Dendis)

(Photo by Will Dendis)

rr map VRT

Dotted line represents the railroad

Volatile crude oil from the Midwest is passing through Saugerties backyards in unsafe railcars. That was the message of an informational meeting conducted by Frack Free Catskills and Riverkeeper on Tuesday, June 17 at the Saugerties Public Library. The groups suggested attendees contact the town to ask it to support a ban on the railcars it feels are unsafe.

A CSX spokeswoman said there is a lot of “misinformation” being circulated and only a few trains are carrying oil on any given day.

The oil in question comes from the Bakkan fields of North Dakota. It doesn’t just pass through Saugerties, of course, but many towns on its way to New Jersey refineries.


Dan Shapley of Riverkeeper claimed that two of these “virtual pipeline” trains, as they are called by the industry, pass through Saugerties every day, in DOT-111 cars, only 15 percent of which meet industry safety standards. The cars, he claims, have insufficient lining, external shields and venting. “They are like soda cans on wheels,” said Shapley. Each car carries 30,000 gallons of oil and a train can easily be composed of 100 cars. The fracked oil itself is so volatile that rail workers call the trains “bomb trains.”

Concern over such trains has grown steadily along with the fortunes of the Dakota oil fields. In September 2013, 47 people were killed in Quebec when a train owned by a Canadian railroad loaded with extra volatile Bakken crude oil exploded. Three months later, an oil-train derailment and fire forced the evacuation of a North Dakota town. In April, a CSX oil train derailed, sparking a massive fire and oil spill into the James River in Lynchburg, Virginia. A similar accident in Saugerties could require an evacuation up to 10 miles from the tracks. According to Shapley, there were 137 spills nationwide by trains carrying crude oil in 2013, more than occurred in the previous four decades.

Shapley said the number of local trains carrying oil could increase if a proposal to increase the size of a New Windsor oil terminal is permitted.

Locally, Town of Ulster Supervisor James Quigley III has been harshly critical after the railroad failed to report a minor derailment promptly to local authorities. In Kingston, where a new emergency protocol places the derailment of a hazmat-laden train near the top of a list of potential threats to the city, Alderman Brad Will has taken up the issue, displaying photographs online of what he claims are decayed bridges and other infrastructure along the CSX line. Federal transportation officials have issued warnings about the volatility of Bakken crude on the rails. U.S. Senator Charles Schumer has called for new safety regulations that would require tanker cars to have the same double-hulled design mandated for tanker trucks and oil barges.

In response to concerns expressed by emergency responders in Saugerties and other towns through which the oil trains pass, CSX held a day-long training in Kingston on May 30 attended by first responders from Saugerties police, fire and EMS departments.

Saugerties Police Chief Joseph Sinagra characterized CSX as fully capable of handling any crisis that may arise. “They’ve been great partners so far, more than willing to provide trained professionals to mitigate a crisis and assist local responders,” he said.

CSX has its own private police force based in nearby Selkirk, with the training and materials that would be needed in the event of a derailment or spill, according to Sinagra. “In a large accident, CSX would be in charge. They know what’s on the cars and how to handle it, “ he said, although local responders have now been informed how to perform emergency shutdowns and close valves before the CSX specialists arrive. Close cooperation between CSX and local responders is important because “(train) engineers don’t even know what county they’re in” as they pass through. Saugerties police are also watching more carefully for vandalism on the tracks.

Both Town Supervisor Greg Helsmoortel and Sinagra emphasized that trains carry a number of hazardous materials in addition to crude oil that can cause emergency situations. Sinagra added, “Accidents of all kinds happen with all kinds of transportation,” and pointed out “Every alternative [form of transportation] comes with its own set of problems that need to be considered in terms of impact on the human population and the environment.”

The Ulster County Legislature passed a resolution in May calling for a federal ban on the use of  DOT-111 cars to transport crude oil by rail, and Frack Free Catskills is urging local town and village governments to make similar public declarations. Supervisor Helsmoortel acknowledges that the oil-by-rail safety issue is of concern to town officials, but says calling for a moratorium on the oil trains is not on the town’s agenda at present.

CSX spokeswoman Carla Groleau said that the company was aware of and was addressing public concerns over the oil trains. But she also said that issue was the subject of “a lot of misinformation.” Of the 1,300 trains on CSX tracks on any given day, Groleau said only two or three carried oil. Bethge, meanwhile, said that high-profile incidents like the Lynchburg derailment and fire obscured the relative safety of rail transport.

“[An oil-train fire] is great video when you see it on TV but there are very few of them,” said Bethge. “Transportation by railroad is safer than transportation by truck; it’s the safest mode of transportation there is.”

–Additional reporting by Jesse Smith