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The Bomb Train Next Door: Part II

by Susan Hellauer

The second of a two part series about dangerous cargo that regularly rumbles through Rockland.

DOT-111 tankers. Photo credit: NTSB

DOT-111 tankers. Photo credit: NTSB

Just before last week’s Independence Day holiday weekend, more than 5,000 residents living near Maryville, TN were evacuated after a CSX tanker car derailed and caught fire on July 2. The tanker car was carrying Acrylonitrile, a highly flammable and toxic gas which can cause membrane irritation, headaches, nausea and kidney irritation if inhaled in high concentrations. Ten officers and 30 first responders were hospitalized with inhalation injuries following the incident, where authorities established a two mile evacuation zone near the derailment site.

The July 2013 explosion of a Bakken crude train at Lac-Megantic, Quebec that resulted in 47 fatalities got the immediate attention of first responders, lawmakers and local officials wherever freight lines carry crude oil “bomb trains.” Environmental watchdog groups have publicized the danger of crude by rail and have also taken legal action in an attempt to halt or change practices they deem unsafe.

Want to make your own voice heard?

If you are concerned about the hazards of crude by rail in Rockland County, let your village, town and county officials know how you feel. Write or call your representatives in Albany and Washington. Write a letter to the editor.

You can also stay in touch with groups like the Sierra Club, Riverkeeper, Scenic Hudson and Forest Ethics. You can subscribe to the DOT-111 reader, a private website that tracks media reports about accidents and regulation changes involving rail tanker cars.

The people at the FRA, the NTSB and PHMSA are tasked with protecting us all from transport and materials hazards. Visit their websites, write or call them. They work for you.

Just say no?

Local officials are limited in what they can do to stop hazardous cargo like crude oil from being transported through their communities. There is a Common Carrier Obligation of railroads to transport hazardous materials. As long as those materials comply with government standards, railroads can’t pick and choose what to carry or where to carry it. Federal law stands between local governments and the rail operators in the interest of interstate commerce.

Federal agencies

In addition to issuing  and enforcing safety regulations, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) does research on behalf of the railroad industry. In May 2015 it issued new guidelines for the gradual replacement of the outdated DOT-111 tanker car and set mandatory speed limits for oil tanker trains. Oil companies are threatening legal action against these new rules.

Another USDOT agency, The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), has an interest in freight train safety. The NTSB analyzes mishaps, finds transportation hazards and recommends solutions. Rail tanker safety is high on its list of “most wanted” improvements, and it’s pushing for more immediate remedies than the FRA has specified. The USDOT Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration (PHMSA) is also actively monitoring oil train safety, with a mission to “protect people and the environment from the risks of hazardous materials transportation.” It tracks HAZMAT accidents and recommends regulatory changes.

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New York State

Oil train traffic in New York State has increased dramatically in the last three years, during which time oil and freight rail companies have spent almost $1 million lobbying in Albany. Meanwhile, NYS Governor Andrew Cuomo has ordered and carried out several inspections of freight rail infrastructure throughout the state and has uncovered numerous hazards. CSX has responded to reports from these inspections with assurances that all will be addressed.

Protect yourself and your family

Know where you are in relation to hazardous freight trains. Study the CSX System Map to know where oil trains run, especially in relation to your home, your kids’ schools, where you work, shop and play. You can also use the Blast Zone Interactive Map from ForestEthics. Trains have derailed, exploded and burned at low speeds and high speeds, in remote areas, and in the middle of a town. There is no discernible pattern to these accidents, according to PHMSA, so don’t assume it won’t happen near you.

ForestEthicsRocklandTrainMap

Sign up your landline or cellphone number for emergency notification through NY-Alert. If you are already signed up, check your information to make sure it is up to date.

In the event of a spill, explosion or fire, officials will use reverse 911 and NY Alerts to let you know whether to evacuate, how far to go, where to shelter, and when you can return. Disabled and senior citizens who might need help in an emergency should register with the Rockland County Access and Functional Needs Registry and with local police, so that first responders are aware.

Clarkstown residents can sign up for the town alert system, Ready Clarkstown, on the town of Clarkstown website.

Congress

Senator Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) responded quickly to the USDOT’s May 2015 oil train safety plan. He proposed federal legislation to shorten the upgrade schedule and to impose even stricter speed limits on oil trains. In a May 4 press release, Schumer stated that “allowing these outdated oil cars to continue rolling through our communities for another eight years is a reckless gamble we can’t afford to make.”

At a May 6 press conference in West Nyack, Congresswoman Nita Lowey (D-NY representing Rockland County) proposed legislation that would ban interstate shipment of high-volatility crude oil via rail. Citing her many constituents who live near freight lines, she said that her “proposal would immediately ban interstate shipment of the most volatile forms of crude oil so that we can prevent the next tragic crude oil event.” Shipping of Bakken crude that has been processed to reduce its volatility before shipment would still be permitted.

In April, the Rockland County Legislature passed a resolution urging the USDOT to immediately enact rules to reduce the volatility of Bakken crude oil traveling by rail through Rockland County in support of the 2015 “Crude by Rail Safety Act” (H.R. 1804/S. 859).

First Responders

In December 2013, a car carrier and a 99-car oil tanker train collided at the Pineview crossing in West Nyack only 100 feet from the Lake DeForest water main that serves lower Rockland and Bergen County. The incident got the attention of Rockland County Sheriff Louis Falco near whose home the accident occurred. Because the tankers were empty damage was limited, but it served as a wakeup call for the Sheriff’s Department and Rockland Fire and EMS to get real-time hazardous cargo information from CSX to Rockland’s first responders.

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CSX and other freight haulers of hazardous materials cite commercial interests and terror concerns for their reluctance to disclose the exact location and contents of trains. Falco says CSX now has a phone app for first responders that provides near-real-time information in the event of disaster.  The issue of transparency and oil trains, however, is far from solved: rail freight companies in several states are being pressed to provide more real-time information, and they are fighting back with lawsuits.

The Rockland County Sheriff’s Department is now also monitoring oil train speed with radar guns. Falco says trains have been staying under the 50 mph limit, but immediate improvements to Rockland’s grade crossings are still needed.

Along with the Sheriff’s Department and the Town Police Departments on the River Line, evacuation and response plans are being developed by the Rockland County Department of Fire and Emergency Services. They run training sessions and drills to keep volunteer first responders prepared in the case of an incident, and also work with CSX on training, communication and response. CSX also positions supplies of fire-suppression foam along the River Line for use in a HAZMAT incident.

CSX will participate in a full scale derailment drill for Police, Fire and EMS in Orangetown that is planned for July 23.

If it happens…

If you are within a half mile of the incident, get yourself and your family away quickly. If in doubt, don’t wait for a call: just go.

The USDOT recommends one-half mile as a safe zone, but you may receive an alert advising otherwise.

Leaving the area quickly also allows emergency responders the time and space to stage and work.

“Time and distance are your friends,” says  Rockland Fire and Emergency Deputy Director Dan Greeley.

Environmental groups

The Hudson Valley Sierra Club, Riverkeeper and Scenic Hudson (among others) have been active and vocal in publicizing the oil train hazard in the Hudson Valley, as well as the dangers of light and heavy crude transport on the Hudson River. These groups are also monitoring a proposed crude oil pipeline (the Pilgrim Pipeline) along the New York State Thruway right of way.

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A consortium of environmental groups is sponsoring a Stop Oil Trains Week of Action beginning July 6 (the anniversary of the Lac-Megantic disaster). Demonstrations and other events are planned in areas where oil is shipped by rail, to raise awareness and put pressure on government officials and agencies.

Susan Hellauer is a Bronx native and Nyack resident. She has been a volunteer with Nyack Community Ambulance Corps since 2001, and now serves as board member and Corps secretary. She teaches music and writing at Queens College and is a member of the vocal ensemble Anonymous 4.

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