Battle over oil trains begins, perhaps, with a crowded meeting

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Oil trains in Albany. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)
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ALBANY--In a meeting that likely signaled the beginning to a much bigger battle, city and state legislators joined with hundreds of community activists and environmentalists at Giffen Elementary School, in one of this city's poorest neighborhoods, to protest the increase in crude oil shipped by rail through Albany.

The shipments here are expected to grow to more than three billion gallons a year, if current trends continue.

At issue were claims by Global Companies, which has asked the state for permission to expand its operation here, that increasing oil shipments would not increase rail traffic or adversely affect poor and minority communities near the tracks.

Global officials have revealed very little about their plans and were supposed to answer public questions at Wednesday's meeting in the South End, but instead issued a statement before the meeting and gave a brief presentation and would not answer a reporter's questions. Attendees demanded a more thorough environmental study of the shipments, which the D.E.C. previously said was not necessary.

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“I believe D.E.C. let the city of Albany down and the South End by not having a conservation with us two years ago,” said Carolyn McLaughlin, Albany city council president.

State officials repeatedly reiterated that federal law regulates railroads.

Such large gatherings of people concerned about oil trains are a relatively new phenomenon. The Albany meeting is likely the largest public meeting on oil trains in New York.

Opposition will only grow in other communities as more people are alerted to the oil now flowing by rail through their communities, said Kate Hudson, watershed program director of Riverkeeper, the Hudson River advocacy group.

“I haven't seen anything like this,” she said. “This is more grassroots than even the fracking fight.”

Trains laden with Bakken crude oil from North Dakota have derailed, exploded and killed dozens in a series of high-profile accidents since this summer, drawing serious safety warnings from federal regulators. In just the last few months, virtually all of the state's major environmental groups have turned the attention of their members to crude oil shipments. They've even been joined by national groups including 350.org and MoveOn.org.

Giffen Elementary School is literally on the wrong side of the tracks, close to the Port of Albany, where tankers carry fuel down the river. Not far away, dozens of train cars laden with crude park just 25 feet from a public housing complex. One on hand, the groups in Albany are fighting over a specific piece of the state bureaucratic machine: an air quality permit for a facility to heat crude oil. But the deeper battle is a national issue playing out at the very local level as oil trains expand from 9,500 in 2008 to 400,000 in 2013. Oil trains run through hundreds of New York communities, along a thousand miles of track, and Andrew Cuomo recently pushed for increased federal scrutiny on train safety and added five freight inspectors in his budget proposal.

The new facility could bring an entirely new type of crude in to New York, heavy crude from the Tar Sands of Western Canada, which needs to be heated to be transferred off of a train car. Company officials will not say where the oil comes from. On Wednesday, Albany deputy fire chief Frank Nerney said company officials told him heavy crude would be heated at the facility.

It's too early to say if the state will revoke any of Global's permits or reject the pending permit. Carol Tansey directed her comments at company officials sitting quietly in a sea of angry citizens.

"We insist that you won't be able to build your boilers,” she said. “We're going to drive you out of town."

There's considerable profit to be made at the moment by shipping crude by rail through Albany, particularly as pipelines meet public opposition. An increasing amount of oil is coming out of the ground in North Dakota and Canada and companies want it to get to refineries and to the market as quickly as possible.