By MARY ESCHALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Three years after the Port of Albany became a major hub for rail and barge shipments of highly flammable crude oil from North Dakota, emergency management officials are still grappling with training and response plans to deal with a potential disaster like the devastating derailment and explosion that killed 47 people in Quebec two summers ago.
As many as 44 trains per week, each loaded with at least a million gallons of crude oil from North Dakota's Bakken Shale region, move through upstate New York on rail routes from the west and north to converge in Albany before continuing by rail or Hudson River barge to coastal refineries.
Crude-by-rail shipments expanded dramatically after Global Partners, a fuel shipper, got a state permit in 2012 to increase petroleum shipments from 450 million gallons a year to 2.2 billion gallons through its Port of Albany facilities.
In Jan. 2014, Gov. Andrew Cuomo directed state agencies to review crude oil transport throughout the state and make recommendations to prevent and respond to derailments and spills. The effort has spurred new training programs focused on crude oil and foam firefighting, containment and collection boom training, and acquisition of foam equipment.
The Department of Environmental Conservation is working with local agencies in 21 counties along oil train routes to develop spill-response plans, determine where specialized equipment such as fire-suppressing foam and oil-absorbent booms and pumps should be pre-positioned, and train first responders. The response plans for all 21 counties are to be finished by April 2016.
The city of Albany has an emergency response plan that deals with all types of hazardous materials, but doesn't have a plan specifically for oil trains, Albany Fire Chief Warren Abriel said.
“The CSX rail line has paid for six to eight firefighters to attend a two-week training program in Colorado on railroad incidents," Abriel said. “We have done several tabletop and live exercises over the years. The last one with oil trains was last spring."
Global Partners and Buckeye Partners, fuel transport companies with large tank farms at the Port of Albany, have staged practice drills with first responders simulating oil tanker car fires and oil spills on the Hudson River.
Buffalo doesn't have an emergency plan that specifically addresses oil trains, but Fire Commissioner Garnell Whitfield Jr. said one will be completed soon. The city's fire department has had extensive oil train emergency training from rail companies, including a tabletop exercise sponsored by CSX this year, Whitfield said.
Buffalo is one of the New York communities slated to get fire-suppressant foam and other specialized oil-train disaster equipment and related training from the state this year.