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Bomb Trains on the Hudson, Leanne, Part 1, 1825
Fri Jul 29, 2016 10:25

Josefina says the trains have been there since she moved into her house on Greenkill Avenue in Kingston in 2012, “They pass through every hour or two. The noise, it’s constant. It shakes the house. “ She says the frequency of the trains slows down at night but it’s still difficult to get uninterrupted sleep. When asked if she knows what’s inside the big black pill-shaped containers that compose many of the trains she says she does not.

In late 2011, the freight rail in New York State began to carry a new kind of cargo. Crude oil. Specifically, crude oil extracted through the process of hydraulic fracturing in the Bakken shale of North Dakota.

Hydraulic Fracturing, known as “fracking”, is the process by which oil and gas are recovered from shale rock. Shale is a fine-grained sedimentary rock made from compacted silt and mud. Shale gas and oil extraction involves drilling into the earth and injecting a mixture of water, sand and chemicals designed to release the gas and oil from the rock. New York became the second state in the U.S. to ban fracking due to environmental concerns, including that the potentially carcinogenic chemicals used in the process could contaminate groundwater and that the drilling could set off earthquakes. The film Gasland, which helped to galvanize a movement around this issue, showed residents near fracking sites lighting their contaminated tap water on fire.

Despite the ban, NY remains a primary thoroughfare for fracked crude oil from elsewhere heading to refineries on the East Coast. (Prior to the dive in oil prices,) approximately 2-4 trains carrying crude oil traveled down the Hudson River and through many Hudson Valley communities each day. The trains are easy to spot because they each have about 100 identical pitch black containers. Each container holds approximately 30,000 gallons of crude oil, the equivalent of 2 million sticks of dynamite.

Additionally, another 8.4 million gallons were being transported by tanker each week, and 4 million gallons by barge daily. Overall this adds up to approximately 6.3 billion gallons of crude oil transported through the Hudson Valley each year. (Need to fact check prior to publication- Although this has slowed down due to current oil prices, it may pick up again if the market shifts. )

Frontline Communities

If you follow the freight tracks from Albany about 800 miles west to Chicago, hang a right along the western shore of Lake Michigan, continue North West through Wisconsin and Minnesota and then directly west another 250 or so miles you will find yourself in western North Dakota. A touch south of the rails lays the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, in the heart of the Bakken shale.

Fort Berthold is home to the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, also known as the Three Affiliated Tribes. This community has experienced the brunt of the oil boom, which in North Dakota alone has surpassed one million barrels of crude oil extracted daily.

Kandi Mossett, an activist with the Indigenous Environmental Network speaks to the impact of crude oil extraction in personal and systematic terms. She describes the air pollution, truck traffic, ruptured pipelines, dumped contaminated frack water and waste pits that release carcinogenic chemicals into the air. The industry is reliant on the groundwater, which is also used by residents for drinking, showering and cooking.

One side effect of the industry has been a marked increase in truck traffic. A close friend of Mossett’s was killed by a truck in 2008 and since then thirty-eight other people who live on the reservation have been killed in truck accidents. She describes the transformation of her small, rural community into an industry hub of Big Oil. The public infrastructure, meant to be used by far fewer people, is overwhelmed. Thousands of male laborers have migrated to the area to work the rigs, bringing with them an epidemic of drug use and sex trafficking.

The public health effects have been devastating. Drug addiction and overdoses have claimed some of her friends, asthma rates have skyrocketed and she herself is a survivor of cancer.

Through her organizing work, the community was able to beat back the construction of an oil refinery on the reservation but much remains to be done.


The dangers of crude oil are not limited to the communities where it is extracted. The process presents dangers from beginning to end. The fracked crude oil cannot stay in North Dakota as there are no refineries there. So it is shipped to the east coast by train, vessel and barge. Approximately 25% of all of the oil produced in the Bakken shale passes through Albany, NY.

The oil terminals at the Port of Albany are operated by two major players in the oil transport industry: Global Companies and Buckeye Partners. These companies, which transload oil from freight train to barge and vessel, were approved to start expansions at the Port of Albany starting in 2011, before concerns about crude oil transport came to light. Although the Hudson has been used to transport petroleum products in the past, namely gasoline and home heating oil for regional consumption, crude oil was not being transported on the Hudson prior to 2011. Once these companies received permits from the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to transload higher volumes they were quickly able increase their transloading capacity to the current allowable volume of 2.8 billion gallons per year, an exponential increase.

The crude oil extracted from the Bakken shale is considered a “light crude”. It is thin and highly volatile. If spilled it would float on the surface of the water and coat the shorelines and wildlife. If ignited there is nothing emergency responders can do but wait until it burns itself out.

This facility may also be transloading “heavy crude” from the tar sands of Canada and elsewhere. “Heavy crude” is thick, the consistency of peanut butter. If spilled it would sink to the bottom of the river and would be nearly impossible to recover. In order to be transported it needs to be either heated or diluted. Global Companies has applied for a permit to build oil heating facilities at the Port of Albany which has not yet been approved or denied. It is unclear whether heavy crude is being diluted at the facility.


In December 2012 the Stena Primorsk became the first tanker to leave the Port of Albany carrying crude oil -12 million gallons of it, approximately the same amount spilled by the Exxon Valdez in Alaska in 1989. The ship ran aground just 6 miles south of Albany, rupturing the hull. The oil was kept from spilling due to the tanker’s double hull, but had it ruptured, the area, a state-designated “significant habitat” would have been devastated.


Crude oil by rail is just as dangerous. In July of 2013 a train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded in Lac Megantic, Quebec. Forty-seven people were killed and hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude oil were released into the environment, including the local river.

Since then, there have been 10 other accidents involving crude oil by rail in the U.S. and Canada, prompting evacuations and causing environmental damage. Fortunately there were no deaths as a result of these accidents, but with more trains on the rails, it may only be a matter of time.

Kate Hudson, the Director of Cross-Watershed Initiatives at Riverkeeper, an organization dedicated to defending the Hudson River and its tributaries, says that although some refined oil was transported on the Hudson prior to 2011, now “the quantity is hugely expanded. When you expand the amount and frequency of oil transport you increase the chances of spills and the disasters that would be associated with those spills.”

These accidents are common for a variety of reasons. The crude oil being transported is particularly volatile. The gases have not been bled out, therefore the product is highly unstable and explosive.

The containers, known as DOT-111s, were not built to transport crude oil. DOT-111s are designed to withstand punctures at up to 12 miles per hour, but the typical speed limit on the rails is 50 mph.

The trains are also traveling on privately-owned infrastructure that has been found to be poorly maintained. According to an Eyewitness News report, “CSX, which owns the bridges, it left mostly to police itself. Like all rail companies, CSX files a one-sentence letter to the State Transportation Department and the Federal Transportation Department stating that all their bridges have been inspected and determined to be safe.” There is only one Federal Railroad Administration rail bridge inspector for New York and thirteen other states.

Hudson draws a parallel, “When was the last time that the airlines could inspect and certify the safety of their own airplanes? It is amazing that this industry is allowed the regulatory freedom that it is.” Video from the investigation reveals crumbling foundations under rail bridges and loose or missing anchor bolts. Every day, 2-4 trains carrying 3 million gallons of crude oil use these bridges.


The Hudson River we know today is not the Hudson of my childhood, when it was synonymous with PCBs, superfund sites and extreme environmental degradation. The idea of people swimming there, let alone consuming fish was met with repulsion. A lot has changed.

The Hudson has become a posterchild for environmental recovery due to decades of environmental activism. Billions of dollars have been invested in the clean-up and the river is now home to over 200 species of fish, including endangered species. In 1996 the Hudson Valley was designated a National Heritage Area and the river is the centerpoint of the region’s $4.7 billion tourism economy. It is also a source of drinking water for residents of Poughkeepsie, Highland, Port Ewen, Hyde Park and Rhinebeck.

Since 2011, the same organizations that have spearheaded this incredible effort, including Riverkeeper, Scenic Hudson, the Sierra Club, and others, are sounding the alarm today about the risks of crude oil. Is it possible that all of the progress that has been made could be undone with one accident?

At a recent forum on crude oil transport at City Hall in Kingston, the Disaster Manager for the Red Cross in several Hudson Valley counties spoke up at the end of the Q & A. He said, “we are not prepared for this…I think it is very important talk about the fact that there are no resources to deal with such a large emergency…it’s a real danger.”

The trains are passing through urban centers, near residences, schools and hospitals. Could a Lac Megantic happen right here in the Hudson Valley?

Hudson says, “New York gets all the risk, and no benefit. It is not a part of our economy, it is not creating jobs. It is just passing through.”

    • Bomb Trains on the Hudson, Leanne, Part 2, 873 - jt.indypendent, Fri Jul 29 10:26
      Continued from Part 1... Although the State’s narrative has been that it is pre-empted by federal railroad law and therefore cannot do anything to regulate crude by rail, there are nevertheless areas ... more
      • Re: Bomb Trains on the Hudson, Leanne, Part 2, 873 - jt.indypendent, Sat Aug 6 02:10
        By Leanne Tory-Murphy KINGSTON, N.Y.—In late 2011, freight trains in New York State began to carry a new kind of cargo, transporting a highly volatile form of crude oil extracted through hydraulic... more
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