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.

Salt Production in Syracuse, New York (“The Salt City”) and the Hydrogeology of the Onondaga Creek Valley The Salt Industry, Tully Farms, N

Prepared in cooperation with Onondaga Lake Cleanup Corporation, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency-Region 2,

New York State Department of Environmental Conservation

Salt Production in Syracuse, New York (“The Salt City”)

and the Hydrogeology of the Onondaga Creek Valley

The Salt Industry, Tully Farms, N

Brine from springs in and around the southern end of Onondaga Lake, from former brine wells dug

or drilled at the lakes’ edge, and from wells that tapped halite (common salt) beds near Tully, N.Y., 15

miles south of Syracuse, were used commercially from the late 1700’s through the early 1900’s for salt

production. The rapid development of this industry in tie 18th and 19th centuries led to the nicknaming

of Syracuse as “The Salt City.”

The brine originates from halite bed

Debate on Fracking: Was Syracuse Right to Ban the Controversial Natural Gas Drilling Process?

Debate on Fracking: Was Syracuse Right to Ban the Controversial Natural Gas Drilling Process?.  Amy Goodman, Democracy Now  Nov. 4, 2011

  • Debate on Fracking: Was Syracuse Right to Ban the Controversial Natural Gas Drilling Process?

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    Ny_fracking_rally_webWe’re broadcasting live from Syracuse, which recently became the third city in New York state to ban the natural gas drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The Syracuse Common Council voted unanimously last week to ban fracking within city limits. They also voted to limit where wastewater from the fracking process can be stored. Fracking is controversial because it injects millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals deep into the earth in order to break up shale rock and release natural gas. Many feel this extraction process raises a myriad of human health and environmental issues. Supporters of fracking say it has led to an exponential increase in gas production and has not been harmful to either the environment or human health. To find out more about the issue of fracking, we host a discussion with three guests: Kathleen Joy, Syracuse Common Council majority leader, who led the city’s efforts to ban hydrofracking; Don Siegel, professor of earth sciences at Syracuse University; and Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper with the Council of Chiefs of the Onondaga Nation. [includes rush transcript]

Syracuse bans fracking – NewsChannel 9 WSYR

Syracuse bans fracking – NewsChannel 9 WSYR.

Central New York Denied Fracking Hearings

Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation

2013 East Genesee St. F Syracuse, NY 13210 ~  (315) 472-5478  ~

N E W S     R E L E A S E

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:  September 7, 2011

For more information:
Jack Ramsden, Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation, 315-424-1454


Central New York Denied Fracking Hearings


Public Outraged at Being Shut Out of New York State’s Hearing Process

on Dirty Gas Drilling

(Syracuse, NY)—Governor Cuomo and the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) today released New York State’s draft fracking guidelines (officially known as the Revised Draft Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement or “SGEIS”) and announced a public hearing schedule that does not include Central New York.  Representatives of ShaleshockCNY and residents concerned about the environmental impacts of dirty gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” are outraged that New York State does not plan to hold public hearings in the area, despite longstanding local interest and potential impacts.

“Residents of towns throughout Central New York are worried about the impacts of fracking and with good reason. All you need to do is look at what’s happened in Pennsylvania to know fracking is dangerous,” said Mary Menapace, a Skaneateles resident and member of ShaleshockCNY.  “Towns throughout CNY have a direct stake in how our state leaders decide to oversee fracking, as evidenced by the outpouring of effort by local citizens and town officials to enact safeguards in advance.  We’re concerned not just about fracking, but frack fluid disposal, truck traffic, water withdrawals, and the potential for gas, equipment, or chemical storage on the properties of landowners who signed boilerplate leases.  People here had no idea what they were signing, and need strong protection.”

Earlier this month, 76 organizations, including ShaleshockCNY and Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation, released a letter to Governor Cuomo and New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Commissioner Martens calling for a 180-day comment period along with public hearings in at least the same four areas where the agency held hearings on its 2009 draft fracking document—Binghamton, Sullivan County, New York City and Delaware County. The letter also called on state leaders to hold hearings in as many of the communities likely to be affected by fracking as possible, including but not limited to, places like Onondaga County.  Over 1900 parcels have been leased to gas companies by landowners in Onondaga County, according to research by the Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation.

“We’re planning on holding a ‘SGEIS Study Session’ as part of our Evening of Fracking at the Palace Theater in Syracuse on Wednesday, September 21st,” explained Lindsay Speer, a community organizer who works with environmental groups on behalf of the Onondaga Nation, including ShaleshockCNY.   “While people will have the opportunity to talk about their concerns and work on their comments on the SGEIS there, we also need a real public hearing.  Public hearings are part of the democratic process and help make sure our concerns about fracking are recorded and delivered.”

To frack a gas well, millions of gallons of water, sand, and toxic chemicals are pumped deep underground at high pressure. This fractures the rock that has trapped the gas for millennia and allows it to escape. From start to finish, gas development that relies on fracking is an industrial process that threatens our water. State after state, from Wyoming to Pennsylvania, has documented its dangers. New York can’t afford to put short-term gas profits ahead of the long-term health of our water and our communities.


ShaleshockCNY is part of the greater Shaleshock Action Alliance, a movement that works toward protecting our communities and environment from exploitative gas drilling. ShaleshockCNY aims to bring together the variety of people and groups working on the issue of hydrofracking so that we can share information and work to protect our communities.

Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation (NOON) is a grassroots organization of Central New Yorkers which recognizes and supports the sovereignty of the traditional government of the Onondaga Nation.  NOON supports, and collaborates with, the Onondaga Nation in their initiatives to promote environmental healing and restore respectful relationships between the governments of our Nations.

Lindsay Speer
Community Organizer

716 E. Washington Street
Syracuse, NY 13210

315.475.2559 (work)
315.383.7210 (cell)
315.475.2465 (fax)

Onondaga Medical Society Cites Health Dangers of Fracking

Commentary: Insufficient evidence hydrofracking safe, says Dr. David Duggan, president of Onondaga County Medical Society

Published: Friday, November 26, 2010, 5:00 AM
 By David B. Duggan, M.D.

The Onondaga County Medical Society wishes to express its strongly held opinion that there is insufficient scientific evidence available to assure that the process of hydrofracking to enhance natural gas production is safe.

Because of the potential for significant health problems arising from exposure to unknown chemicals in drinking water and through agricultural uses of contaminated water, we believe that proposals for hydrofracking in Upstate New York should be made contingent upon the provision of sufficient scientific evidence to ensure that the public’s health is protected. Among the scientific issues that should be addressed are the following:


1) The additives to the water used to force natural gas from bedrock shale should be described in detail, including the components and concentrations of the additives.

2) Detailed studies should be performed to determine where the water will migrate after injection. This is especially of concern in those areas of the Marcellus shale that are at or near the surface, and where contaminated ground water remains a real concern.

3) The timeframes for the waters injected and their solubilized contaminants to spread throughout the region may be measured in several years, as geologic processes often evolve slowly, but this should not preclude the development of well-performed studies to measure these effects before widespread hydrofracking is approved.

Anecdotal reports of well contamination and the new phenomenon of natural gas seepage through wells and into personal water supplies should be investigated thoroughly by an independent third party with sufficient equipment and training to render an informed opinion as to the relationship of the gas escape and hydrofracking. The biological effects of each of the additives proposed for hydrofracking should be made public, and if insufficient investigations have been performed, they should proceed before these additives are used.

The implications of a contaminated ground water supply are substantial. We do not wish to recreate water-linked disasters such as Onondaga Lake’s contamination or the contamination that occurred in association with the WR Grace Company in Woburn, Ma., which was linked to multiple cases of childhood leukemia in the 1970s.

The assurances offered by the drilling companies, and statements that such things cannot happen because of the geologic formations present are not reassuring, as the companies’ incentives are to produce gas and profit, and assumed impermeability of underlying strata is a hypothesis rather than a demonstrated fact.

The potential for migration of contaminated hydrofracking water delivered under pressure is quite real, and the permeability characteristics of underlying strata have been based on limited sampling. I believe that only through an extensive sampling process with test wells could any realistic data be developed.

David Duggan, M.D., is president of the Onondaga County Medical Society.