Superheroes of our future are sun and wind

Trains carrying crude oil regularly travel through two of the towns we cover — New Scotland and Guilderland. The public has recently focused on dangers at the Port of Albany, where tankers of oil — brought from the boom of Bakken shale in North Dakota — are put on ships in the Hudson River.

The disaster last July in Quebec where explosions killed over 40 people and wiped out half of downtown Lac-Mégantic got the attention of Americans as well as Canadians. In the last year, more than a dozen spills from oil trains have occurred in the United States and Canada — many of them from the two rail lines that run through our towns: CSX and Canadian Pacific.

We’re not opposed to rail travel or transport. The way many European countries developed around train rather than highway transport makes for better use of resources. Population centers there are more concentrated without the suburban sprawl America has suffered.

The railroad system we have in America — if it is to be used the way it has been, to transport hazardous materials — must be made safer. Most of the crude oil in this country and Canada transported by train is carried in DOT-111 tankers, which are non-pressurized and prone to rupture.

In 2011, The Association of American Railroads, a trade group representing North American freight railroads, put out a notice that tank cars built after October of that year have to meet new safety standards for valves, casings, and linings. Such a directive, though, has no teeth. Rail lines can still use the old tankers, and they do.

On Feb. 20, the association announced an agreement with the federal Department of Transportation that its trains with tankers would reduce speed in cities, would undergo more inspections, and would develop response resources and help pay for training — all good things. But none of them are enforceable by the federal government.

Another toothless initiative is that rail companies are allowed to charge more for poorer tankers; this is meant to encourage the use of better tankers. We urge the government to simply require the better tankers.

Frustration mounts as rail regulation is federal. At the state level, we commend Governor Andrew Cuomo for adding five additional rail safety inspectors in his 2014-15 budget proposal, which would double inspection capabilities. We urge the legislature to follow through with this addition; it would be money well spent.

At the local level, the most we can do is be prepared for disaster should it strike. The Association of American Railroads will provide local first responders with a list of the top 25 hazardous materials annually transported through their communities so that they may prepare for emergencies. We urge our local fire departments to request these lists if they haven’t already.

Emergency responders are not allowed to release the information for fear terrorists could use it. We can understand that specific times of travel for trains hauling flammable cargo should not be released, but Americans are entitled to know what cargo is rolling through their backyards.

Further, we urge our first responders, if they haven’t already, to prepare with training — the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration are supposed to supply guidance — should such an emergency occur.

One of the eight commitments the Association of American Railroads agreed to last week was to spend $5 million on training emergency responders. Ed Greenberg, a spokesman for CP Rail, told our New Scotland reporter, Lisa Nicole Viers, “In 2013, CP hazardous materials experts trained more than 200 firefighters in New York State, including 20 in Albany. More training sessions are planned this year....”

The Federal Railroad Administration, part of the department of transportation, says that, because of the increased crude oil rail traffic, it is doing more safety inspections in the Bakken Region; training shippers, consignees, and contractors on safety measures; and educating local officials on grade-crossing safety. It has come up with the acronym RAMP (Rail Accident Mitigation Project) for its efforts.

More work is needed. In 2009, fewer than 6,000 carloads of crude oil were transported in the first half of the year and there was one spill. In 2013, in the same time period, over 356,000 carloads were transported and there were 137 spills. Oil spills from rail cars in 2013 totaled more than in the previous four decades combined.

Rather than just preparing for disaster, we’d like to prevent it. One of the things we can do, as individuals, is conserve energy, use less of it. Something we can do individually and as a society, is to move to renewable energy.

In 2012, the New York Energy Highway Task Force mapped out a plan to improve the state’s energy infrastructure. As we’ve written before, but is worth repeating: Such planning is essential as the state’s economy and the well being of its residents depends upon reliable energy. The initiative brought together New York’s major energy, environmental, and economic development agencies and authorities to plan for decades ahead. The blueprint produced by the task force lists 13 initiatives.

The blueprint, though, should be dominated with a move to renewable energy. Our so-called leaders need to put aside the demands of political backers — big oil and rail — and work as quickly as resources and science will allow to support clean energy. That is where the bulk of taxpayers’ dollars should go.

An Altamont resident recently wrote us a letter about the solar system she installed to power her home. “We’ve been paying about $2 a month for electricity,” wrote Edna Litten. The excess power her panels produce in the spring and summer go into the grid, building credit for nighttime and less sunny days. She concludes, “Our experience with solar panels has shown them to be a way to save money while using clean renewable energy.”

Still local, but a level up, we commend the town of Guilderland for moving ahead with solar energy. Like solar power for individual homes, the energy for the town’s use is economically feasible because of government rebates. The federal government and the state government both need to commit to sustainable resources, providing tax credits at the very least.

We wouldn’t bear the expense and danger of transporting fossil fuels if we put our resources into solar and wind energy. No shipping required. No explosions. No fatalities. And fewer greenhouse gases. Our world would be cleaner and safer.
— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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