[Editor: Has anyone researched similar legal authority in California? Under what jurisdictional authority would Governor Brown have power to stop crude oil trains, regardless of federal preemption? - RS] .... and let's not forget Washington and Oregon!
State’s next gamble is oil trainsBy Christopher Amato and Charlene Benton, March 19, 2015
Having won approval for legalized casino gambling in New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is now rolling the dice on oil trains. The string of oil train disasters over the last year and a half, including four derailments in the past month in West Virginia, Illinois and Ontario resulting in massive fires, explosions and air and water pollution, shows that transporting crude oil in unsafe rail cars poses a significant threat to New Yorkers’ lives and property and the state’s natural resources.
Indeed, the oil train report prepared at the governor’s direction by five state agencies and the scores of oil train safety violations detected by federal and state inspectors confirm the dangers of transporting oil in unsafe rail cars. Yet the governor refuses to use the state’s authority to end this hazardous practice. Instead, he claims — incorrectly — that only the federal government has the authority to protect New Yorkers from the dangers of oil trains.
The Environmental Conservation Law authorizes the commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation to order the immediate discontinuance of any condition or activity that he finds “presents an imminent danger to the health or welfare of the people of the state or results in or is likely to result in irreversible or irreparable damage to natural resources.”
In 1990, then-DEC Commissioner Tom Jorling ordered several companies to halt the transportation of oil and sludge in unsafe barges. In that case, a federal appeals court ruled that federal law did not prevent the commissioner from exercising his emergency authority.
In October 2014, we submitted a petition to DEC on behalf of a broad coalition of community and environmental organizations requesting that Commissioner Joe Martens use his authority to prohibit the receipt and storage of crude oil in unsafe rail cars at the Albany oil terminals operated by Global Cos. and Buckeye Partners. Recently, DEC rejected the petition in a two-page letter, claiming that only the federal government can act to protect New Yorkers.
If, as the federal appeals court has held, federal law does not prevent the DEC commissioner from ordering an emergency halt to the transport of oil and sludge in unsafe barges, why can’t the commissioner order a halt to the receipt and storage of crude oil in unsafe rail cars? Given the high stakes, isn’t this course of action at least worth trying?
The Cuomo administration has repeatedly claimed that New York is the most aggressive state in the nation taking action on the threats posed by the rail transportation of highly volatile crude oil. But a recent news story reported that dangerous oil train shipments in New York have expanded on Cuomo’s watch, while other states like Washington are blocking crude-by-rail projects or requiring a full environmental, health and safety review of such projects.
The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that an average of 10 oil train derailments will occur each year for the next two decades, and predicts that a derailment in a populated area — such as Albany — could kill hundreds of people and result in billions of dollars in damages. It is time for the Cuomo administration to stop gambling that New York will escape the type of oil train catastrophe that has already occurred in Alabama, Virginia, North Dakota, West Virginia, Illinois, Ontario, New Brunswick, and Quebec. If the governor’s luck runs out, it may cost New Yorkers their lives.
Christopher Amato is an attorney at Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law firm. Charlene Benton is president of the Ezra Prentice Homes Tenants Association, which represents public housing tenants in Albany’s South End.