Albany County pushing tough new oil train law

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Firefighters and other first responders are familiarized with tank cars on the CSX Safety Train in the Port of Albany. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)
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ALBANY—Albany County Executive Dan McCoy on Wednesday proposed another tough, local regulation affecting oil trains.

During a press conference at a the Ezra Prentice public housing project, just a feet away from a row of tanker cars, McCoy said county legislators are expected to soon approve a law that would fine and criminally charge oil train officials who don't report spills within 30 minutes. Operators would be charged $1,000 in addition to the $5,000 fine levied on the oil transportation companies by the state for each violation that occurs.

With the odor of crude oil hanging in the air as he spoke at the press conference, McCoy said he wants Albany County to become a national example for how communities can do their part to restrict oil trains, which are regulated by the federal government.

“We're going to set the stage not just for New York, but for the nation,” he said.

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McCoy said he anticipates a lawsuit from one of the oil train operators as a result of the county's actions. Still, he said, he wants to set a new standard for local communities that are struggling to address an influx of oil trains.

“I'd love to see the state do this—they have a bigger bank account than we do,” he said.

In April, five state agencies delivered an oil train report ordered by Governor Andrew Cuomo. The report called for minor regulations, but largely shifted responsibility for oversight to Washington. Cuomo also wrote to President Obama asking for greater federal assistance with spill responses.

State officials increased inspections and are reviewing permits that allow two companies to handle almost 3 billion gallons of crude at the Port of Albany.

The new state regulations did not include any new laws or any restrictions on the movement of oil trains.

Albany County has taken a more aggressive approach.

Even state officials were caught off guard when McCoy earlier this year announced a moratorium on the expansion of crude handling at the Port of Albany.

In a March meeting in Albany, the state Department of Environmental Conservation officials raised concerns about the county's authority to impose that moratorium unilaterally, according to sources present at the meeting.

In response to questions by Capital about the meeting, the county and D.E.C. each issued statements late Wednesday saying the two sides had a collaborative relationship.

After the moratorium was imposed, Global Partners, which is seeking to bring another type of heavier crude through Albany by proposing a boiler system at the port, threatened a lawsuit. It has not filed any legal challenges to date.

McCoy has appointed Peter Iwanowicz, executive director of Environmental Advocates of New York and an avowed oil train opponent, to lead an advisory committee on crude oil safety. This week, Iwanowicz met with the federal Environmental Protection Agency to discuss a more thorough air monitoring system at the port because, he said, the state system was inadequate.

The county's advisory committee also called on rail operators to produce a response plan should heavy tar sands crude enter drinking water supplies. And they requested that rail operators let country officials ride the rails to assess environmental and human health risks.

Ezra Prentice residents told reporters on Wednesday that the crude oil smell in the air gave them sore throats and other health problems, particularly during the summer.

Iwanowicz said the state has not yet shared the public air monitoring results with the county even though it set up a monitoring system months ago near the Ezra Prentice public housing project in response to public pressure. He said that is why they have now been forced to turn to federal regulators for assistance.

“If you're being aggressive, as the state claims to be, why aren't there air monitors here?” he asked.