Health

Albany County halts tar sands oil processing plans pending health study

Executive order used to issue moratorium on tar sands boilers at Port of Albany after local outcry over safety

Railroad oil tanker cars parked along Interstate 787 in Albany, N.Y.
Mike Groll/AP

Albany County has halted an oil company’s plans to install boilers for processing tar sands, the latest in a trend of residents expressing concern for their health and safety, and feeling that not enough is being done on a state and federal level to protect them from oil industry interests.

The county was able to halt the plans — which would have involved building several boilers and heaters to heat tar sands before shipping them to a refinery, according to county officials — under a New York State Public Health Law that empowers county health departments to address threats to public health or safety.

The executive order came Thursday after Daniel McCoy, Albany County Executive, said Massachusetts-based Global Partners had not adequately addressed the health and safety concerns of local residents. McCoy said the moratorium will not be lifted until a public health investigation is carried out and action plans are made for large-scale disasters resulting from the transport or processing of oil.

“They weren’t answering our questions. People here want to know what will be released into the air from the processing of tar sands and crude oil,” McCoy told Al Jazeera. “They were hiding behind homeland security, saying they couldn’t release that information.”

“How do we respond if something happens? Do we evacuate? All the stuff you normally know, we don’t,” said McCoy.

Residents living near tar sands refineries in Detroit, Mich. and Port Arthur, TX have complained of breathing problems and increased rates of cancer, which they blame on emissions.

Global Partners told Al Jazeera in an emailed statement that they had not heard any concerns voiced by county officials, but that they were reviewing the executive order issued Wednesday.

"We will also continue implementing a public outreach program focused on providing information to the community about our plan to install and operate four steam boilers and three heaters at the Albany facility," the company said in a statement said.

“I ordered the Albany County Health Department to investigate air quality and safety of the people,” said McCoy“Even if Global Partners gets the permit for the expansion from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), they can’t move forward until we’ve established whether or not it’s safe for Albany County residents — at the end of the day, it’s about people’s safety.”

The DEC told Al Jazeera in an emailed statement that it is "agressively reviewing (Global's) permit application and all crude oil operations around the state."

"No other state in the nation has been as aggressive in pursuing action that will help to ensure the public and the environment is protected from accidents related to the transport of crude oil," the DEC said in its statement, adding that it would work with community leaders to implement air screen monitoring near the Port of Albany to measure pollutant levels and assess public health issues.

Since Global Partners has not made public the content of emissions from its processing plant at the Port of Albany, it would be impossible to know what to test for, McCoy said. He added the county may need to subpoena the company for its records. Then, if the county finds that the processing will not adversely affect public health, the moratorium will be lifted.

Albany residents also expressed concern about the safety of transporting highly flammable crude from North Dakota’s Bakken shale region in outdated DOT-111 cars after a spate of rail accidents in recent months. In Quebec, a train carrying mislabeled crude exploded in downtown Lac Megantic, killing 47 people. The Albany moratorium will not impact this ongoing practice, but the health study will look at the potential health and safety impact.

In February, a coalition of environmental groups including the Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit against the federal government over its lack of response plan for possible oil spills on the Hudson River, on which Global Partners transports its processed oil. It also addressed the inadequacy of those plans in the face of the “enormous increase” in Bakken crude and Alberta tar sands oil that would be transported through New York State.

“Bakken is very flammable — it’s the same oil that exploded in Lac Megantic,” Mollie Matteson, senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, told Al Jazeera.

An official from the Department of Transportation (DOT) told Al Jazeera that rail safety is a national priority, and that the DOT is aware of the safety issues posed by transporting crude in DOT-111 tanker cars.

The U.S. Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) have issued several safety advisories related to the safe transport of crude by rail.

That includes the Jan. 2 Safety Alert issued by PHMSA, which is currently creating rules to improve the design of the DOT-111 tank car. In August 2013, PHMSA and FRA launched Operation Classification in the Bakken shale region to ensure that crude was being properly classified. It also recently announced the first proposed fines that would be associated with transporting mislabeled crude — though none are in effect yet.

Matteson of Center for Biological Diversity said the Global Partners proposal to build oil-heating equipment likely means more tar sands would be coming through New York because Bakken doesn’t need to be heated.

“We said to the federal government: ‘You need to get your emergency response plans up to date, and make sure the 17 protected species in the Hudson River are protected because you haven’t looked at the consequences and how you would clean up a spill,’” Matteson said.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office last month asked for a study on safety issues related to transporting crude by rail, but Matteson said not much has come from that.

“The big question right now — because the expansion was all set to go ahead — is, what is being done on a state and federal level to protect the public? It’s only because of a local outcry that there has been this action,” Matteson said. “The county action has pre-empted state action.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly called Daniel McCoy by the wrong first name.

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