hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires





Company pledges safer tank cars for crude oil


A company that has become a major destination for hazardous crude oil shipments on area railroad lines says it will start requiring the use of newer, safer tank cars beginning in June.
Global Partners, one of two companies at the Port of Albany that currently accept trainloads of highly flammable crude oil from the Bakken shale region of North Dakota, announced April 30 that it would phase in the requirement for the newer tank cars starting June 1.

The hazards of shipping Bakken crude oil by rail have been the focus of a series of news stories and government inquiries since July, when a runaway oil train derailed and exploded in the town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, 10 miles from the Maine border, setting off a huge fire that killed 47 people and leveled 30 buildings.

The cover story in the April Observer detailed how Albany’s port on the Hudson River has been transformed in the past three years into one of the most important hubs in North America for shipments of Bakken crude oil. At the port, Global Partners and another company unload the oil from train cars and transfer it to storage tanks, barges and tanker ships en route to refineries along the East Coast. The companies have state permits allowing them to handle up to 2.8 billion gallons of oil annually at the Port of Albany, and trains carrying the oil pass through numerous local communities in eastern New York and, to a lesser extent, in western New England.
One key safety problem identified by government and railroad officials is that many of the tank cars being used for crude oil shipments were not designed to handle highly flammable cargo. The National Transportation Safety Board has been warning for more than 20 years that the older tank cars, known by the model number DOT-111, are prone to rupturing when trains derail. All of the cars that exploded in the Lac-Megantic disaster were DOT-111 cars, and these older cars still account about 70 percent of the North American fleet.

Citizen activists, elected officials and some railroads have been urging federal regulators for months to require newer, safer tank cars, known by the model number CPC-1232, for all crude oil shipments. The newer cars have thicker shells and extra protective shields at each end, as well as additional protection for the top fittings.

Last month, Canadian transportation officials announced they would require the DOT-111 cars to be phased out for shipments north of the border by May 2017.

In announcing that it would voluntarily require the CPC-1232 cars for shipments to its Port of Albany facility, Global Partners issued a statement characterizing the decision as a reflection of the company’s commitment to safety. The company made its announcement on the same day that a CSX freight train carrying Bakken crude oil derailed and exploded in Lynchburg, Va. No one was injured in that incident, but authorities evacuated several downtown buildings, and some 50,000 gallons of oil either burned or spilled into the James River.

On the day after the Virginia derailment, a citizens group staged a protest in Albany calling for a moratorium on crude-oil “bomb trains” through the city.

Sandy Steubing of the group People of Albany United for Safe Energy, which organized the protest, told the Times Union that she was unimpressed with Global Partners’ pledge to phase out the older tank cars, noting that the company has not said how long it will take to complete that process.

“We don’t believe any upgrade to safe rail cars is possible,” Steubing told the paper, adding that the oil trains “need to go away.”

In other news from around the region in April:


Berkshire Medical to buy shuttered hospital
Berkshire Medical Center of Pittsfield has reached a tentative agreement to buy and reopen at least a portion of the former North Adams Regional Hospital, which closed abruptly in late March amid a financial crisis.

Under an agreement reached as part of the North Adams hospital’s bankruptcy case, Berkshire Medical’s parent company, Berkshire Health Systems, would buy the hospital building and open a satellite emergency center there by mid-May. The agreement is still subject to final approval by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Springfield.

The Berkshire Eagle reported that the Pittsfield hospital will initially be allowed to use the North Adams facility rent-free under a 90-day lease while details of the purchase agreement are finalized. The purchase price was not initially disclosed, but The Republican of Springfield later reported that Berkshire Health Systems would pay a total of $4 million for the North Adams hospital and a separate medical office building.

Berkshire Health Systems had been negotiating to take over the North Adams hospital for some months before the shutdown. The Boston Globe, citing unnamed sources, has reported that the hospital closing and bankruptcy were triggered when Berkshire Medical’s executives broke off the talks in March, refusing to take on the North Adams hospital’s debts and pension obligations. The 109-bed hospital closed March 28 with three days’ notice, despite state regulations that supposedly required 90 days’ notice.

Berkshire Medical already has hired nearly 150 of the more than 500 employees who were laid off when the North Adams hospital closed.


Vermont moves toward GMO labeling
Vermont will soon be the first state in the nation to require labeling of genetically modified foods.
Legislators in both chambers voted overwhelmingly last month to pass a bill requiring labels on produce and processed foods with genetically engineered ingredients, despite warnings that the legislation might face costly legal challenges from the food and biotechnology industries. Gov. Peter Shumlin was expected to sign the bill into law at a ceremony on May 8.

Both Maine and Connecticut have passed similar labeling laws, but those laws won’t take effect until and unless neighboring states pass similar requirements.

-- Compiled by Fred Daley