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Politicians, Activists Warn of Crude Oil Spill Dangers

On May 17 the Coalition to Ban Unsafe Oil Trains plans to march through Teaneck to demonstrate its opposition to the transport of what have come to be called “bomb trains,” those trains hauling aged-out and unsafe tanker cars filled with Bakken Crude Oil from North Dakota to refineries in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

With the transport of crude oil jumping from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to more than 400,000 carloads in 2013, a 400 percent increase in transport, activists and politicians are warning, it’s not “if” there’s an accident in local areas but “when” one will occur.

On May 6, only hours after JLNJ spoke with Ora Kornbluth, a Bergenfield council member, about measures taken to protect the borough from oil train fires, another derailment and explosion of tanker cars carrying Bakken Crude Oil occurred, this time in the farming community of Heimdal, population 24, in North Dakota. Various other derailments have occurred in 2014 and 2015 in Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and Illinois.

If such an accident happened any place along the line in New Jersey, Councilman Alan Sohn of Teaneck said it could wipe out 2,500 people in a square kilometer or about 7,500 people in a square mile, translating to hundreds if not thousands of people in any of the towns along the CSX rail line, as well as homes and livelihoods. Drinking water could also be despoiled, as the CSX line, carrying upwards of 80 rail tank cars of the volatile fuel a day (according to Hudson Riverkeeper) cuts through highly populated borough centers and over water sources such as the Oradell reservoir, which services 800,000 people.

The trains also travel within 1,500 feet of the following schools in New Jersey, as reported by ABC-TV news.

Teaneck Community Charter School—Teaneck—130 ft.

Teaneck High School—Teaneck—1200 ft.

Benjamin Franklin M.S.—Teaneck—1200 ft.

Yeshiva Gedolah—Teaneck—100 ft.

Torah Academy—Teaneck—250 ft.

Ma’ayanot Yeshiva H.S.—Teaneck–150 ft.

Roy W. Brown M.S.—Bergenfield—300 ft.

Yeshivat He’Atid—Bergenfield—600 ft.

“Two words: volatile, deadly,” said Howard Rose of Teaneck. “It can impact everyone you know and love.” Though Rose is a member of the Planning Board and a trustee on the Teaneck Board of Education he said he was not speaking in any official capacity.

Speaking of a previously published JLNJ article, in which a lack of water resources was mentioned as a problem in fighting fires, Kornbluth said “If God forbid something happens, to me this is the smallest part of the whole problem.” While water is used to cool down areas and limit the spread of fire, Kornbluth said the firefighters can pull water from the Hackensack River, (as well as the Oradell Reservoir).

However, “it’s just my understanding of the situation for the most part they’re not going to fight this type of fire. Unfortunately, a lot of times they just have to let this burn out in a controlled environment.”

Sohn said that can’t be allowed to happen in Teaneck. Not just because of the population. “We have a tremendous amount of critical infrastructure,” as well as vital structures along the train tracks, including schools, two substations, the fire station, the ambulance corps, supermarkets, sports fields, senior centers and Route 4, one of the main traffic corridors crossing the tracks.

One challenge Kornbluth does not foresee is the expertise and preparedness of the fire department. “They have been just amazing. Since this issue came about (around three years ago) they’ve done a lot of training, they’ve been meeting with CSX. Our fire department is on the forefront of preparations dealing with this. If something happens they’ll be prepared to the best of their ability because they’re taking this seriously.”

What people have been unaware of, said Rose, are all the other potentially hazardous materials that are transported by CSX through the area, such as chlorine and methane gases.

Until recently, first responders had no idea what they would have to deal with when there was a freight-line accident, because the contents of the cars were kept secret by CSX.

However, Kornbluth spoke about the greater communication from CSX, informing the fire department what is in the train cars and tankers, as well as more communication with the Office of Emergency Management (OEM). “All these things are going to help.”

However, Kornbluth said it is better to try to prevent accidents from happening. She referenced recent federal safety measures that have been put into place and others that are pending Congressional review.

However, proposed legislation and DOT rules have little to do with the safety of the existence of the tracks themselves, said Sohn. “There’s no protection, whatsoever.” People cross the tracks or kids cut under the tracks in places and can get hit by the train. There are no gates or any barrier protecting the freight line (or commuter line) easements from trespass and people get hit and killed by walking on a train track while listening to music and not hearing the train and also by attempting to beat a train across a grading with their vehicles, ignoring the barriers, where there are barriers.

On May 1, there was the issuance of a final rule for stronger crude oil transport regulations put into effect by the US Department of Transportation, which requires enhanced design standards and braking systems for new and existing tank cars, updated operating speed limitations (down to 40 mph from 50 mph) and thorough analysis of risks associated with the routing of trains carrying crude oil.

Kornbluth said that while all the legislation is important and a good step, it can (and according to the rule will) take up to five years for the improved cars to be on the tracks.

However, “accidents don’t wait to happen,” said Paula Rogavin, who elected officials have pointed to as the driving force behind the “coalition to ban unsafe oil trains,” which is organizing the upcoming demonstration.

She said the older “DOT 111” cars that run through Bergen County “can—and do—explode like toxic bombs.” Even the newest upgraded “1232” train cars, which were transporting Bakken oil in West Virginia, Illinois and North Dakota, exploded.

“Safer to me does not mean safe,” said Rose.

Soon to be introduced in the House of Representatives is a ban on interstate shipment of high-volatility crude oil via train and a national standard for crude volatility when shipped by rail. Bakken fuel shipped through New Jersey on CSX has a Reid Vapor Pressure (how quickly a liquid fuel evaporates and emits gasses) of 13.7 psi (pounds per square inch). Most other crude oil has a psi of under 8.5. The higher the psi is, the more volatile the substance.

According to this soon-to-be-proposed legislation, rail shipments of Bakken crude that have been treated to make it less volatile, below 8.5, would be allowed interstate transport.

Kornbluth said she does not believe that such legislation, banning the interstate shipment of highly volatile substances, would ever happen. As to the second part of the legislation: “Once again, I am not a firefighter,” said Kornbluth, “but in my opinion no matter how volatile it is, if you have crude oil and a train derails, it might be a little less of a fire but it still is a fire.” She said there are other safety measures that can be put into place besides lowering the speed limits and changing the oil tankers, and she contends that Bergenfield was on the forefront of resolutions dealing with this.

More safety inspections would be an immediate way of accident prevention, said Kornbluth. She said there are many more inspections on passenger trains than freight trains. “If they had more safety inspections of the wheels of the freight cars it might make a big difference.” Inspection of the tracks would also cut down on the possibility of accidents, said Kornbluth. Another step would be to improve the safety measures at grade crossings. (There are four in Bergenfield.)

“These are immediate fixes that can be done that are a lot cheaper and a lot simpler.”

Though there is a lot of media, political and activist focus on Bakken crude oil, which is considered the most dangerous crude oil, it is not the most dangerous substance being transported through New Jersey. Chlorine and methane gases, high-explosive, radioactive materials, are just some materials transported through high-population areas.

“This is exactly my point,” said Kornbluth. “The railroads are necessary in order for the economy to flourish. A good portion of New Jersey’s economy depends on the safe use and transport of these materials. Saying it can’t be transported is not the answer…Let’s go past the cars, let’s look at the basics. Let’s make the crossings safer, let’s make the rails safer, let’s make the rail cars safer. Try to stop the easy accidents from happening and let’s move on from there. You’re never going to stop everything, but there are a lot of simple, normal ways to stop accidents.”

Participants in “The March to Ban Unsafe Oil Trains” will assemble on Sunday, May 17 at 1 p.m. in Sagamore Park at Windsor Road and Beatrice Avenue in Teaneck. The march will be 1.5 miles along the CSX line starting at the Teaneck Ambulance Corp (10 feet from the tracks) and ending at a power substation. Following the march there will be a rally at 2:30 p.m. at the Palisade Avenue and Court Street Votee Park, across from the Teaneck Rail Yard.

By Anne Phyllis Pinzow

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