Air Quality Concerns Raised By Albany Residents Living Along Oil-By-Rail Tracks

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Ezra Prentice apartments

Residents of the Ezra Prentice apartments in Albany, N.Y., have been complaining about air quality issues ever since the oil trains showed up in the Port of Albany two years ago.

And recent testing by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has confirmed their fears. In 20 out of 21 air samples taken by the department, benzene levels exceeded the long-term benzene exposure standard. Benzene is a known human carcinogen.            

What happened next is puzzling. The department reached a shocking conclusion, relayed to the residents of Ezra Prentice by research scientist Randi Walker at an August meeting: “The bottom line is that we didn't find anything that would be considered a health concern with these concentrations that we measured.”

The finding was so bizarre that David O. Carpenter, the director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the State University of New York at Albany, wrote a report about it. In that report, Carpenter calls the Department of Environmental Conservation’s conclusion “irresponsible.”

Carpenter also criticized the limited sampling done, saying, “It is scientifically insupportable for NYSDEC to draw any conclusions regarding potential human health risks in the South End based on such meager sampling.”

But there won’t be more sampling and the department’s research scientist Randi Walker was clear about that saying, “We didn't see anything that necessitated further sampling.”

Charlene Benton, president of the Ezra Prentice Homes Tenants Association, doesn’t agree. 

Dr. Carpenter’s report confirms what the people who live next door to the crude oil facilities at the Port of Albany have known all along: that the oil fumes from those facilities make people sick,” she said. “We don’t understand how DEC could have concluded that there are no public health issues without having spoken to a single resident of Ezra Prentice about what its like to live here and breathe this polluted air.”

This isn’t the first time the DEC has disappointed the residents of Ezra Prentice. Ezra Prentice is an environmental justice community, a designation given to communities with populations that have higher than average minority and low-income residents.

Of the approximately 25.8 million people who live within the one-mile evacuation boundary of oil train routes, 15.7 million (61 percent) potentially qualify as living in environmental justice communities, according to recent technical comments on the new proposed oil-by-rail regulations submitted by Earthjustice, ForestEthics, Sierra Club, NRDC and Oil Change International.

When Global Partners applied to the DEC for a permit to bring in 1.8 billion gallons of oil by rail per year into the Port of Albany, the department informed them that. “A determination will need to be made as to whether the project will result in potential adverse environmental impacts that are likely to affect this potential Environmental Justice area.”

Global Partners responded saying, “The proposed project will not have any adverse environmental impacts. As a result, no further environmental justice analysis is required.” 

The DEC appears to have accepted that statement and no environmental justice analysis was done. Additionally, no environmental impact statement was required by the DEC.

What happened in Albany is part of a pattern that has occurred across North America as new oil-by-rail facilities are approved. The oil companies say there will be no impact to the air quality and the regulators take their word for it.

In one of the more egregious examples, e-mails obtained by Reuters showed an Irving Oil official e-mailing the Department of the Environment saying that he did “not see any obvious requirement for an EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment)” regarding his company’s planned oil-by-rail facility in St John, New Brunswick. 

Two hours later the Department of Environment official wrote back agreeing that no EIA was needed. Much like in Albany, the residents near the Irving facility in St. John have complained about air quality issues, with one resident commenting to Reuters that the fumes can “burn your eyes.”

Similar situations have played out on the West Coast where multiple oil-by-rail facilities have been approved without environmental impact assessments. And when an environmental impact assessment is done, as in the case of the 360,000-barrel-per-day Tesero facility in Washington, it is being completed by consultants with ties to Tesero. 

John Echeverria, a national expert on environmental law and a professor at Vermont Law School, assessed the situation of the Tesero environmental impact assessment for The Columbian.

“It's par for the course in the corruption of the environmental analysis process in the United States,” Echeverria wrote.

The pattern that has emerged in oil-by-rail has been for regulators to give the green light to whatever the industry wants and then to wait to see if anyone notices. With 180 oil-by-rail facilities in North America and 50 under construction, it is likely that the impacts of this industry on air quality and human health are just beginning to surface.

Photo: Tank cars roll past the Ezra Prentice apartments in Albany, N.Y.

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