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Crude oil concerns at the Port of Albany

Two African-American men testify about the dangers of crude oil trains
Jenna Flanagan
Innovation Trail

Call it a case of David vs Goliath. A fortune 500 oil company sets up shop at the Port of Albany and inside of a decade request the Department of Environmental Conservation to allow them to ‘modify’ their air quality permit. The changes go largely unnoticed until community members of Albany’s South End get wind of the project at the 11th hour, forcing the DEC to hold a public comment meeting. Environmental justice takes front stage as citizens attempt to take on Global Companies LLC.

At a hastily called public meeting by the Department of Environmental Conservation, Albany County Legislator Christopher Higgins voiced his concern and disapproval for the potential changes.

“This I think is a dangerous proposal anyway you look at it. I don’t think we really have enough facts specifically about this new type of crude oil. I personally found out it is much more explosive than other types of fuels that the United States is currently using.”

What’s driving these fears? Global Companies, a wholesale distributor of petroleum wants to begin heating their product so it will flow better for transport and delivery. Just like bacon fat, or so the company says.

To do this they’ve requested the DEC modify the Clean Air Title V (5) permit, allowing Global to heat its residential fuels, biofuels and crude oil. At issue is whether or not the company can heat petroleum safely.

A public comment meeting at Giffen Memorial Elementary School in Albany brought out a sizeable mix of politicians, environmentalists and neighborhood residents.

Most of the comments, like Legislator Higgins’ pointed to the volatile nature of crude oil. Fears over potential explosions, spills and railroad accidents were all raised, citing a rail car explosion in Quebec last summer. They talked about a blast zone, evacuation plan and clean-up should a disaster occur.

Global Companies plans to install 7 new boilers that would heat their petroleum products in storage containers and rail tanks. Global says it doesn’t want to expand operations at the Port of Albany, just alter them. However, its proximity to Albany residents had environmentalists like Mary Finneran of the newly formed Sovereign People’s Action Network or SPAN up in arms.

“What does it behoove the people here to have this facility. They are taking the gas or the oil from outside this state. They are boiling it they are going to send it down the river and out of this country. What does it behoove these people here to have any of this. It doesn’t behoove us, we profit nothing and we don’t want it.” 

Global Companies Port of Albany location is one mile away from the Giffen Elementary School. Even more disturbing, for some, is that the facility butts up against Albany’s Ezra Pretince Houses, potentially putting the community of almost 200 units of mostly low income minorities’ in harm’s way.  SUNY Albany’s David Carpenter, Director of the Institute for Health and the Environment spoke out at the meeting.

“I’d like to address my comments to the air quality which I think is the critical issue, both in the transport and particularly the heating of crude oil.”

Professor Carpenter is an expert on the long term effects of air pollution and organic chemicals on people.

He says it’s easy to sensationalize an explosion or environmental spill but warns heating crude can release an invisible, slow killer.

“Among the little molecules of greatest concern is benzene. Benzene is a known human carcinogen and if you breathe benzene in, you risk all kinds of cancers but especially leukemia is increased.”

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, benzene is one of several volatile organic compounds found in crude oil. When you heat it, benzene particles could be released into the air causing symptoms like irritability, depression, respiratory diseases in adults and asthma in children.

Global Companies acknowledges the emission risk and during their presentation at the DEC public meeting, Tom Keefe, Global’s Director of Environmental Health said safety is their top priority.

“We check ourselves. We monitor our operations to ensure that our procedures are followed, we inspect facilities on a regular basis and we conduct drills and exercises to ensure that our plans are sufficient.”

When heating crude oil, Keefe compared the petroleum heating system to a home water heating system. Steam would heat oil in the rail cars using a system of coils. As the steam transfers heat to the oil it will condense back into water and then flow back to the boiler were it is heated again. Storage tanks would be heated in a similar manner using thermal oil instead of steam.

Any vapors released during the heating process would be controlled by a vapor combustion unit. Any chemically contaminated air would be carefully pumped into it.

Professor Carpenter says even with meticulous and careful procedures in place it’s still likely some chemicals will escape into the air.

During the meeting, DEC Region 4 Director Gene Kelly reminded the audience that the DEC only has jurisdiction over air quality and would closely monitor the air from the Albany County Department of Health.

“DEC determined that the installation of the new boilers would not have any significant adverse environmental impact because there would be no adverse air emissions to surrounding areas.”

Almost a year ago, the DEC cited a different company, the Tonawanda Coke Corporation for multiple violations of the federal Clean Air Act. In a previous New York NOW report, it was revealed the company was releasing benzene, amongst other carcinogens into the air in the western New York community. A Department of Health study revealed elevated rates of lung, bladder, esophageal and uterine cancer were found in Tonawanda and Erie County. The department also found more instances of preterm birth and heart defects in the area as well. The Tonawanda Coke Corporation still retains its air quality permit.

After the meeting, the DEC called the gathering very productive and said they look forward to continuing this conversation with the community.

Albany South End residents, environmentalists and the elected officials say they want to push the DEC to rescind its Air Title V (5) Facility permit to Global Companies and deliver an environmental impact statement on the project before any work goes forward.

The public comments will be accepted thru April 2nd.

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