If you have paid even a modicum of attention to the climate justice fight over the past couple years, you have probably been aware of both the movement to keep fracking out of New York state, and the fight to prevent the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry oil from North Dakota and the tar sands of Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico, from being built.
If you are like some of us, you have admired the ranchers, farmers, and First Nations people along that pipeline and in the tar sands itself who have been creatively and consistently and bravely saying they want no part in this horrendous environmental catastrophe that is destroying communities in the short term and threatening to keep us from being able to head off catastrophic climate change in the not-that-much-longer-term. You might have wondered whether you would do the same if you lived in these threatened communities, and felt quietly grateful you did not.
Well, now you do.
It appears that unbeknownst to most of us, since the Keystone XL pipeline has so far been delayed, the oil companies have begun shipping their product by rail. And if it comes east, it comes here, to be transferred at the port of Albany and sent on down the Hudson River.
Right now, those tanker cars some of us have been cheerfully pointing out to our train-loving children, are carrying Bakken crude oil, which is extracted via fracking in North Dakota. It is so unstable that it boils below 95 degrees and has a flash point below 73 degrees. A train car of it exploded in Quebec recently, killing 47 people and destroying a downtown.
If that’s not bad enough, what has brought it to public attention finally is a proposal by Global Companies LLC to create a new facility at the Port of Albany to heat oil in order to transfer it. They won’t say what kind of oil, but the fact of needing a facility to heat it makes tar sands oil a likelihood, as it is thicker than others, being an extreme dirty, polluting product. It’s not quite as explosive as Bakken crude apparently, but even harder to clean up after a spill. (It’s heavier than water among other things. Anyone remember that we had a tanker run aground in the Hudson recently? Just saying.)
There are so, so many things wrong with this. The moral problem with enabling the tar sands destruction to continue. Banning fracking and then being forced to let fracked product traffic through our community anyway. The lack of transparency. The danger of both accidents and pollution to our whole community, but with the brunt falling, as always, on the poor and disadvantaged who live disproportionately near the rail line and the port.
In fact, this whole scenario is a perfect example of why an environmental justice lens is crucial to the climate change fight, not just a PC add on: If did not consider it ok to subject certain populations of people to the risks and negative effects of extracting and shipping this stuff, then we wouldn’t be able to keep doing it.
I am grateful and heartened that so many people, from so many parts of the city, turned out and spoke eloquently at the Common Council meeting on Monday about this issue, and that the council recognized its importance by putting on the agenda and unanimously passing Councilmember Leah Golby’s resolution calling for an environmental justice assessment and a public forum, and for keeping the state DEC comment period open until at least a month after the forum and the results of the environmental justice assessment are made public.
Here’s what all concerned can do now: The Albany Planning Board can issue a positive declaration under the State Environmental Quality Review Act, requiring a full environmental impact assessment. Albany County, all the other affected municipalities and counties along the rail line and the Hudson River, can pass resolutions similar to Albany’s and let the state know about them. Everyone can write to firstname.lastname@example.org, and (1) request a public forum, environmental impact assessment and environmental justice assessment, and extended public comment period and (2) go ahead and comment!
Let’s not kid ourselves, though: This is going to be a hard fight. The amount of profit riding on these companies getting their product to market is mind-boggling, and as public sentiment and the facts of advancing renewables technology turn against them they will only fight harder. Because this is interstate commerce, and the port is a state authority, it is unfortunately not something our local governments can halt by themselves. This is going to take more than emails. It’s going to take organizing, it’s going to take investigating, and it will probably take putting our bodies on the line at some point. But this is clearly our piece in the big fight. It’s come to us. I’d like to think we won’t back away.
(This column was originally published in Metroland, the Capital Region of New York’s former alt-weekly, on Jan. 9, 2014.)