Increase in ND oil rail traffic through New York raises safety concerns

Mar 31, 2014

A clear and present danger hiding in plain sight.

That’s how Cornell University’s Susan Christopherson describes the oil train traffic through the state.

A massive explosion caused by a runaway oil train in Quebec last July has raised awareness about the levels of flammable material being shipped by rail.

Christopherson, a professor of city and regional planning, says New York state finds itself with a mobile oil problem.

The crude oil transported across New York is from the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota, the country’s second largest oil producing state.

“Companies that are transporting oil are looking for flexibility and if you’re going to build oil pipelines, that’s a very big investment and that’s a fixed investment," Christopherson said. "You have to put in the pipelines and they have to be there for a long time… they want a flexible form of transportation that is going to take the oil to the places they want to get it.”

Christopherson says Bakken oil wells in North Dakota have a limited amount of product and so companies are eager to extract as much as possible to sell it on the international market. Recent approvals by the Department of Environmental Protections allow almost three billion gallons of crude to be processed through the city of Albany.

“We were focused on the shale gas activities as a drilling activity in place," Christopherson explained. "We weren’t thinking about the transportation side of it… We weren’t thinking about the whole supply chain we were just thinking about the drilling.”

Ironically she says it was the obvious increase in the number of oil trains that caught the public’s attention there. People realize, she says, that crude oil transportation can present an imminent risk.

“When you’re shipping by rail you’re going to have accidents," Christopherson said. "That goes with the territory, you’re going to have industrial accidents. So partly what we have to keep in mind is that the oil and gas industry and the transportation of oil and gas is an industry that is dangerous and dirty and it has accidents.”

The National Transportation Safety Board says the number of trains carrying crude oil has increased from almost 11,000 in 2009 to nearly 400,000 now. A 2013 report from the Government Accountability Office noted that the Federal Railroad Administration only examines one percent of the country's rail road infrastructure.

As a result, Gov. Andrew Cuomo directed state agencies to review their emergency spill response plans and report back by the end of April. Also Democrat Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is now pressing federal agencies like the EPA and the Coast Guard to implement contingency plans in case of spills.