By Mark Reynolds
In the wake of the recent rail derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, Ulster County Executive Jen Metzger sent a letter out to local town officials in the county to sign in support of having the CSX railroad company install improved safety measures on trains, something she feels is long overdue. She pointed out that the railroad companies have been reporting record profits while failing a prime directive to protect the health, safety and welfare of the public.
Metzger’s letter has been sent to Pete Buttigieg, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation, and the Hon. Amit Bose, Administrator for the Federal Railroad Administration.
Metzger began by stating that she was writing, “out of deep concern about the inadequacies in federal regulation governing the transport of hazardous material by rail.” She wrote that the recent tragedy in Ohio, “has brought renewed attention to the potential dangers to public health and the environment associated with the shipment of chemicals, liquefied natural gas and other hazardous materials through our communities, and the public is justifiably worried that a similar catastrophe could just as easily happen here.”
Metzger wrote that Ulster County’s location in the Hudson Valley is “an area of nationally recognized scenic beauty and natural resources and is home to more than 182,000 people.” She said 38 miles of West Shore Rail Line run through seven municipalities and 13 miles of track run along the western shore of the Hudson River. She estimates that more than 25 million tons of freight, including crude petroleum, waste, industrial chemicals, motor vehicles and other goods are transported through these communities and “nearly 200 trains pass over 30 at-grade rail crossings every week.”
Metzger said that for years Ulster County communities have documented, “many concerning conditions, including unsafe bridges, dilapidated crossings and dangerous track conditions. She stated that the NYS Department of Transportation [DOT] and the Federal Rail Administration [FRA] have also been made aware of these long neglected dangerous conditions.
Metzger stated that the present unsafe conditions of the trains and their infrastructure pose a grave threat to the drinking water because many river towns tap the Hudson River.
“In our area more than 100,000 residents depend upon the Hudson River for their drinking water supply and a large rail accident along the shores of the Hudson River would be disastrous,” she wrote, adding that she is also concerned about, “the potential for a rail accident in our more populated urban core, which include minority and low-income communities that are already disproportionately burdened by the health and quality-of-life impacts of diesel-powered freight.”
Metzger is calling for railroad companies to make a number of improvements: have the DOT and the FRA strengthen regulations for high-hazard shipments, including requiring that all tank cars carrying hazardous materials meet DOT-117 safety standards; a fleet-wide replacement of pneumatic braking systems (a Civil War-era technology) with modern electronic brakes; a wider deployment of technology that can detect and prevent accidents, such as wayside defect detectors and hotbox sensors. She added that rail companies must be held to minimum staffing levels that are adequate to ensure safety. Minimum fines for safety violations must be increased to levels that actually affect corporate behavior and are not just written off as a cost of doing business. The FRA must strengthen regulations regarding trains blocking at-grade crossings.
Federal funding must be increased to support training and equipment for local first responders to ensure that they are best prepared to respond to major train accidents involving hazardous materials. County Emergency Management Coordinators must be given advance notice regarding the nature and quantity of hazardous materials that will be transported through Ulster County communities.
In a subsequent interview, Metzger said the issue of railroad safety has been at the forefront before the recent Ohio derailment. She recalled that lot of advocacy was done around the trains that were transporting Bakken crude. They were referred to a “bomb trains” because of the oil’s volatility. They were bringing this type of oil from the Montana, South Dakota, Saskatchewan and Manitoba regions.
Metzger said because the rail companies have not made improvements, the public has borne the cost, “of their lack of investment.”
“What was terrifying about East Palestine is that you see just how dangerous these chemicals are that are being transported by rail,” she said. “No amount of emergency response can stop a toxic cloud.” Metzger said she is not sure if the rail companies ever transport radioactive material.
Lloyd Supervisor Dave Plavchak was a signatory to Metzger’s letter.
“I just think we need to be aware of what’s on these trains that are coming through the area,” he said. “My biggest issue is if one of them were to derail and go into the Hudson River because we pull a good portion of our water supply from there.” There are seven municipalities that use Hudson river water – Lloyd, Esopus, Town and City of Poughkeepsie, Hyde Park, Rhinebeck and Red Hook.
Depending on the level of the emergency, Plavchak said the town may first shut down the water intakes from the river and then engage with town’s fire department and with the county on how best to handle the given situation.
Town of Woodstock Supervisor Bill McKenna said train safety has been a frequent topic at the monthly meetings of the Supervisor’s Association. He said although there is no train line running through Woodstock, “our neighbors Saugerties and the Town of Ulster both have a line running through theirs. If they were impacted it would adversely impact Woodstock.”
Marlborough Supervisor Scott Corcoran said it is imperative that, “we know what these companies are actually transporting on these rails. As we learned from Ohio, the local municipalities and the towns weren’t made aware of what was on the rail system. What we’re asking for is to be more transparent and to know what’s going up and down the Hudson River. Not only is it our community that’s affected, we’re talking about the historic Hudson River that could be affected.”
Metzger has the last word on this issue.
“Rail infrastructure is a critical part of our transportation infrastructure and an inherently efficient means of commerce, but for far too long, critical health and safety issues have not received the attention they deserve. In the wake of the East Palestine disaster, there is no excuse for inaction,” she said.