Collateral Damage from Fracking

colateral damage poster

FracTracker Alliance | Off the Rails: Risks of Crude Oil Transportation by Freight in NY State and Beyond

FracTracker Alliance | Off the Rails: Risks of Crude Oil Transportation by Freight in NY State and Beyond.

By Karen Edelstein, NY Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

Since 2011, North Dakota crude oil from the Bakken Shale Play has made its way to refineries on the east coast via freight trains. This means of oil transportation is becoming increasingly common, as plans for pipeline development have been falling short, but demand for more energy development continues to climb (see New York Times, April 12 , 2014). In addition to the Bakken crude, there are also currently proposals under consideration to ship crude by rail  from Alberta’s tar sands region, along these same routes through New York State.

Alarm about the danger of these “bomb trains” came sharply into public focus after the disaster in Lac Mégantic, Québec in July 2013 when a train carrying 72 carloads of the highly volatile Bakken oil derailed, setting off a massive series of explosions that leveled several blocks of the small town, killing 47 people (photo above). The crude from the Bakken is considerably lighter than that of other oil and gas deposits, making it more volatile than the crude that has been traditionally transported by rail.

Quantifying the Risk

As estimated by the National Transportation Safety Board, with deliveries at about 400,000 barrels a day headed to the Atlantic coast, about a 20-25% of this volume passes through the Port of Albany, NY. There were recent approvals for 3 billion gallons to be processed through Albany. The remainder of the crude is delivered to other ports in the US and Canada. Any oil travelling by rail through the Port of Albany would also pass through significant population centers, including Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse, NY. Binghamton, NY is also bisected by commercial rail lines.

In the past year, the New York Times, as well as other media, have reported on the threat of disasters similar to what occurred in Québec last summer, as the freight cars pass through Albany. Not only is the oil itself volatile, safety oversight is extremely spotty. According to The Innovation Trail, “… a 2013 report from the Government Accountability Office noted that the Federal Railroad Administration only examines 1-percent of the countries rail road infrastructure.”

RiverKeeper, in their recent report on the topic, notes:

Nationwide, shipping crude oil by rail has jumped six-fold since 2011, according to American Association of Railroads data, and rail shipments from the Bakken region have jumped exponentially since 2009.

This ad-hoc transportation system has repeatedly failed — and spectacularly.

The fires resulting from derailments of Bakken crude oil trains have caused fireballs and have burned so hot that emergency responders often can do nothing but wait—for days—to let the fires burn themselves out.

The Guardian has reported that a legacy of poor regulation and safety failures led to the disaster in Québec, leading to bankruptcy of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railways (MMA), and numerous class action suits. Records show that MMA was particularly lax in maintaining their rail cars and providing training for their employees. Meanwhile,  in the US, critics of rail transport of volatile crude oil point to inadequate monitoring systems, training, and, importantly, prepared and available emergency response teams that would be able to respond to explosions or disasters anywhere along the route. The size of a explosion that could occur would easily overwhelm volunteer fire and EMT services in many small towns.

These same trains pass through other major cities in Western and Central New York, including Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, and Utica. Not only are the railroads in proximity to significant population centers, they are also close to scores of K-12 schools, endangering the wellbeing of thousands of children (Table 1). In fact, across New York State, 495 K-12 public schools, or 12% of the total in the state, are within a half-mile of major railways–the standard evacuation distance for accidents involving railcars filled with flammable liquids and gases, as recommended by the US Department of Transportation (DOT) intheir Emergency Response Guidebook. The US DOT also recommends an isolation zone of 1600 meters (1.0 miles) around any railcars filled with those materials if they are on fire.

Toward an Evidence-Based Fracking Debate (2013) | Union of Concerned Scientists

Toward an Evidence-Based Fracking Debate (2013) | Union of Concerned Scientists.


center for science and democracy





Toward an Evidence-Based Fracking Debate (2013)

Science, Democracy, and Community Right to Know in Unconventional Oil and Gas Development

Hydraulic fracturing—better known as fracking—and other technological advances, such as horizontal drilling, have resulted in the rapid expansion of “unconventional” oil and gas extraction.

Communities across the country now face difficult decisions on fracking. Promises of economic growth have led many communities to embrace unconventional oil and gas development, but questions about environmental and health risks, and about the duration and distribution of economic benefits, are causing deep concern.

These decisions become especially challenging when the public lacks reliable information about the impacts of fracking. Inadequate governance, interference in the science, and a noisy public dialogue all create challenges for citizens who want to be informed participants in fracking discussions.

The 2013 Center for Science and Democracy report, “Toward an Evidence-Based Fracking Debate: Science, Democracy, and Community Right to Know in Unconventional Oil and Gas Development,” examines the current state of the science on fracking risk as well as the barriers that prevent citizens from learning what they need to know to help their communities make evidence-based decisions.

A Lack of Transparency

Communities seeking reliable information about fracking often run into barriers:

  • Most companies do not disclose complete information about the chemicals used in fracking, claiming that this data is proprietary and its disclosure could hurt their business.
  • Companies have restricted access for scientistsconducting research that is crucial for understanding the impacts of fracking.
  • Since lawsuits brought by citizens affected by fracking usually end in non-disclosure agreements, data used as evidence in these cases is unavailable to the public or to scientists.

To remove such obstacles, companies should be required to collect and publicly disclose three kinds of data:

  • Baseline studies of air, water, and soil quality before drilling begins;
  • Monitoring studies during and after extraction activities;
  • The chemical composition, volume, and concentration of the chemicals used in their operations.

Such concrete data will enable scientists to quantify risk, empower citizens with reliable information, and help hold polluters accountable.

Misinformation and Interference in the Science

With large profits at stake, it is perhaps not surprising that government and academic research on fracking’s environmental and socioeconomic effects has been subject to interference from political and corporate forces.

The EPA, on multiple recent occasions, has begun to act against industry actors whose fracking activities were found to have caused environmental damage—only to back off in the face of pressure from the companies themselves or sympathetic politicians.

Academic study of fracking, too, has been vulnerable to corporate interference. The University of Texas published a study in 2012 that was strongly criticized after the lead author was revealed to have ties to an energy industry firm. And SUNY Buffalo was forced to close its Shale Resources and Society Institute in response to similar criticism about the relationship of some of its professors to the natural gas industry.

Legal Limitations and Loopholes

One might think that laws like the Clean Water Act, and regulatory agencies like the EPA, would provide adequate protection against possible fracking risks. However, it turns out that federal laws and regulations are full of loopholes and shortcomings. (Perhaps not coincidentally, the industry spent $750 million on lobbying and political contributions between 2001 and 2011.)

  • Most fracking operations are exempt from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act and parts of the Clean Water Act thanks to a provision in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 commonly known as the “Halliburton loophole” (because former Halliburton CEO—and then Vice President—Richard Cheney chaired the task force that recommended the exemptions).
  • The Bureau of Land Management in May 2013 released revised regulations to address such exemptions on public and tribal lands, but the new regulations again have troubling loopholes regarding chemical disclosure.
  • State and local governments have attempted to fill the regulatory gap, but the result is a patchwork of old and new rules varying from state to state, with important protections often absent.

Empowering the Public

Community members looking for answers on fracking must navigate a noisy and often misleading information landscape. To maximize the chance of finding reliable information, citizens should:

Seek out objective sources. Government sources usually provide objective information. Government websites can be hard to find, however; try using the phrase “hydraulic fracturing” rather than “fracking” in a web search. Another potential source of objective information is the insurance industry, which relies on factual information and accurate risk assessment.

Carefully navigate media sources. The public should look for stories that neither stoke nor dismiss concerns, but accurately represent the work scientists are doing and explain, without exaggerating, the complex relationship between uncertainty and risk.

Watch out for misinformation. Citizens must carefully navigate through messages from fracking stakeholders. Misinformation rarely takes the form of outright falsehoods; instead it may appear as half-truths, exaggerations, omissions and misrepresentations. Stakeholders on both sides may skip over nuances, uncertainties, limitations and caveats in scientific studies in their eagerness to use the research as evidence supporting their views.

Community Right to Know

The public has a right to reliable information:

  • about the likely impacts (negative and positive) of unconventional oil and gas development on their community;
  • about the uncertainties and limitations of our scientific knowledge;
  • about what is covered by regulations—as well as what isn’t, but should be.

Ultimately, citizens need to be empowered with the information they need to make informed decisions about unconventional oil and gas development in their communities.

A Toolkit for Community Decision Making

Along with this report, we have developed a toolkit for active citizens and policy makers faced with decisions about unconventional oil and gas development in their communities. By providing practical advice and resources, the toolkit helps citizens identify critical questions to ask, and obtain the scientific information they need to weigh the prospects and risks in order to make the best decisions for their community.

To read or print the toolkit, go






Elisabeth N. Radow, Esq.**

Preble Takes a Stand

preble ban news 3-13-14_Page_2

A model for other Cortland Co. towns?  There are actually over 200 NY towns/cities/counties that have imposed bans or moratoria on various aspects of fossil fuel extraction, production, transportation and infrastructure.  Except for very specific bans on selling municipal water and processing fracking waste at the Cortland’s municipal treatment plant, this is the first ban in Cortland County and one of the most comprehensive state-wide.  This ban is based on the town’s comprehensive plan and on a revision of the zoning code,  local and external legal and technical consultation and extensive official and citizen participation.

Preble’s ban recognizes that the threats to its agricultural and rural character extend far beyond the drilling of gas wells because explosive fossil fuels require massive industrialization–pipelines, storage facilities, surface transportation by trucks and rail, compressors, etc.  Even if the NY hydrofracking ban remains in place, the fossil fuel infrastructure will continue to expand.

Concerns go beyond “worry” about water contamination, explosions, health dangers, economic boom and bust and destruction of existing economies.  Research from PA, CO, TX and other heavily industrialized fossil fuel production areas is providing proof that these impacts are real and significant.  This week’s fatal gas main explosion in New York City reminds us that continuing to rely on fossil fuels and our aging infrastructure is a dead end.

Seneca in the Balance — Live Stream Archive – YouTube

Seneca in the Balance — Live Stream Archive – YouTube.

Bakken Crude, Rolling Through Albany –

Bakken Crude, Rolling Through Albany –

Banks Reluctant to Lend in Shale Plays as Evidence Mounts on Harm to Property Values Near Fracking | DeSmogBlog

Banks Reluctant to Lend in Shale Plays as Evidence Mounts on Harm to Property Values Near Fracking | DeSmogBlog.

Court: Federal laws supersede local zoning ordinances for proposed gas compressor station in Myersville – The Frederick News-Post : Natural Resource

Court: Federal laws supersede local zoning ordinances for proposed gas compressor station in Myersville – The Frederick News-Post : Natural Resource.

  • Oct. 8 — The U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland rules that local zoning laws are pre-empted by the federal Natural Gas Act. So, according to the court ruling, those portions of the town code that prevent the siting, construction or operation of the Myersville compressor station are null and void.

Anti-drilling activists change tactics, tone | TribLIVE

Anti-drilling activists change tactics, tone | TribLIVE.