Selkirk Rail Yard is one of the largest rail yards in the country. Here are three of several engines that can be found each day at the yard. Photo by Brian Zwicklbauer
SELKIRK — Two separate derailments that occurred just five days apart at Selkirk Rail Yard last month have local officials reiterating calls for legislative reforms aimed at ensuring safe practices for the shipment of volatile fuels through the Capital District.
While the eight cars in question—four of which contained hazardous flammable materials—remained upright and the derailments did not result in any hazardous spills, officials point to the occurrences as evidence that more destructive derailments are not just possible, but inevitable.
“I have said it is just a matter of time before something serious, even deadly, could happen due to the volume of trains transporting crude oil and other flammable and hazardous materials through our backyards, neighborhoods and right along the Hudson River,” said Albany County Executive Dan McCoy in a press release following the latest derailment on Wednesday, June 29. “I am again renewing my call to our state and federal governments for extensive reforms. Derailments continue to happen and we need to ensure the safety of our residents with stricter standards imposed on our rail lines and the equipment.”
According to Selkirk Fire Chief Bill Asprion, the derailments that occurred last month are not uncommon and pose a limited threat. The term derailment, he explained, can cover many different types of event. “Derailment can consist of many things,” he said. “One, a complete rollover—on their side, upside down and inside out—but, if they have just one wheel come off the track, that’s considered a derailment too. In both of these [Selkirk] cases, the cars just had a wheel come off the track. They were totally upright.”
Comparing such incidents to getting a flat tire or having a chain come off of a bicycle, Asprion said that he did not see any reason for alarm. “It costs a lot of money to get them back on the track,” he said. “We have to bring in big machinery to set it back on the track.” Oftentimes, the issue is caused by a twisted or misaligned track and that needs to be repaired as well; other times human error or faulty cars turn out to be the cause. The Selkirk tracks, he said, have already been repaired and the trains are up and running.
“There are derailments everywhere in the country all the time,” said Asprion. “You obviously hope it doesn’t happen, but it happens. Is there a way to avoid it? Probably not.” Selkirk is the largest rail yard in the Northeast, he noted, and sees more hazardous cargo than the much-ballyhooed Port of Albany—and he’s more concerned about the flammable materials traveling our local highways. After nearly 40 years as fire chief, he says he has faith in the safety systems that are in place. “It’s a dangerous place,” he admitted. “It’s a rail yard. We’ve had nine injuries or fatalities down and I’ve been there for most of them.
“But my guys are well trained,” he continued, “and we respond as needed.
“I try not to get involved with the politics, and that’s what a lot of this is. It is dangerous, but so is riding your bike or driving a car. Is it needed? Yes, we need the products and we need the jobs. We need a tax base and every bit of that.”
McCoy has made oil train safety a linchpin of his political career since the volume of volatile material traveling through the Port of Albany exploded around the time that Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings left office. (In 2012, the DEC approved a permit allowing Global Partners to bring up to 1.8 billion gallons of crude oil into the Port of Albany annually and, according to documents pertaining to the approvals, Jennings was the only local politician who was notified—and he neglected to notify the public.) In March of 2014, McCoy issued a moratorium on oil tanker traffic pending a study on the environmental effects of the increased traffic, and he subsequently sent letters to federal and state officials requesting increased safety regulations. Since then, he has continued to draw attention to rail safety and the communities that he feels are disproportionately affected by the oil trains such as those in the South End of Albany near the port, including the formation of a crude oil commission and the filing of lawsuits against Global Partners.
In a recent editorial piece, the county executive remembered Lac-Megantic, the deadly oil tanker explosion that devastated a community in Canada exactly three years ago today (July 6). “There have been disasters across the country that have had devastating effects and polluted waterways,” he said. “Fortunately that hasn’t happened here but just last week . . . we had a train derailment involving propane tankers. There was no leakage but we must remain vigilant and take actions to ensure that we are doing all we can to protect ourselves. “