July 18, 2024
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Water Resources Biggest Issue When Dealing With CSX Oil Tankers

Bergenfield—Water needed to fight fires as well as the dangers to drinking water are two of the main issues that have at least one elected official and a major activist organization in New Jersey concerned when it comes to the potential for disaster from the rail transportation of Bakken Crude Oil on the CSX line.

Most of us have been taught from an early age that oil and water don’t mix; hence, water is not used to put out an oil fire. Due to technology, that’s only partially correct. Some forms of foam, containing water, are designed to put out Class B fires, those of flammable liquids. These are used in oil fires to spread over the surface of a hydrocarbon-based fire and suffocate it. However, in case of an oil fire, water is also used to cool down surfaces, containers, and structures to prevent them from igniting. The specific danger with Bakken Crude oil is that it has a very low flash point and so it spreads fire quickly to other surfaces.

While the official stance of Bergen County, according to its public policy officer, is that there is sometimes too much water in the state, Mayor Norman Schmelz of Bergenfield said that the problem is not enough surface water.

His statement has proved to be true to some extent, according to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Agency’s Drought Information website. Bergen and Essex Counties have been in a state of severely dry stream flow for two weeks (average taken over 90 days), and while Essex has been in near or above average levels of precipitation and stream flow for 16 weeks, groundwater has been moderately dry for two weeks.

Problems with water pressure have plagued areas of New Jersey especially where there has been sudden population grown, as witnessed in Edgewater last year when one of the issues brought up by fire officials was the lack of firefighting water to fight the catastrophic apartment fire, according to the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office arson squad.

Mayor Schmelz said in case of an accident on the CSX line, evacuation plans have to be established because with any type of accident, such as what has been in the news, people will have lost their homes and in many cases their livelihoods. “Once it (Bakken Oil) starts going it will burn at such a high temperature, an evacuation plan is needed because there really is not a plan to put it out, because you really can’t put it out. We just would not have the water resources to be able to put it out.”

He said “we’re still looking at water resources. We have little ponds and we have little brooks; they can be swept up so fast we really don’t have the amount of water.”

Another problem communities have to face is the quality of their drinking water as the trains carrying Bakken Crude Oil and other dangerous substances travel over or near reservoirs, streams, ponds, and rivers in some areas that are drawn upon for drinking water.

Cris Len, a staff attorney for Hackensack Riverkeeper, told JLNJ there are places that the trains cross water bodies in New Jersey which include our drinking water supply. “The most concerning aspect of this is that they’re coming through New Jersey and it’s so densely populated.”

Trains travel across the US from North Dakota, through Pennsylvania and New York, south through New Jersey. But contrary to popular belief, as of this year there are only three operating petroleum oil refineries in New Jersey according to the US Energy Information Administration. They’re located in Linden, Paulsboro, and Perth Amboy.

Len said the issue should be to figure out the best way to move these trains, but “putting them through Bergen County is not the best choice. The first thing you want to do is make the trains more safe.” Len said one way is to distill some of the volatile components of the oil out at the source, which would add some cost to the petroleum. Also he would suggest choosing routes that are not in major population areas and that aren’t near drinking-water supplies. “They (the oil companies) won’t do this because they’re not made to.”

However, rail companies are being made to instill more safety into the process of transportation. Mayor Schmelz said that Gerad Naylis, chief of the Bergenfield Fire Department, had visited Congressman Bill Pascrell (on the Ways and Means Committee) to discuss slowing down the trains carrying crude oil and other highly flammable liquids from 50 miles per hour to 40 miles per hour.

This was accomplished last week, said Melanie Cost, spokeswoman for CSX, through a US Department of Transportation emergency order especially focusing on federally designated High Threat Urban Areas. However, in New Jersey those only include Elizabeth, Jersey City, and Newark, and a 10-mile buffer extending from the border of the combined area.

While prevention of accidents is an uphill process, the next best thing is preparedness. Along this line, Mayor Schmelz said, “we’re continuing to do planning. This Thursday we’re having a meeting of the Inter-Boro Mutual Aid Fire System in Tenafly for the northern New Jersey towns to which Teaneck, Ridgefield Park, and Ridgefield as well as representatives from the County Executive’s office as well as all the first responders. [The goals are] to continue to work out a game plan, training, [discuss] water supply and where we’re going to get the water from.”

Evacuation plans are also on the list of problems to solve, as well as educating people to have their own plans for where to go and how to survive out of their homes for at least a few days, if not more.

One of the problems municipalities have faced is the lack of information provided by CSX. The manifest for the contents of the tankers and other cars on the train is kept by the train engineer. If that manifest is inaccessible or destroyed in the accident, or the train engineer can’t communicate the information to first responders, they would have to make their way through unknown substances, rendering the accident potentially hazardous.

Schmelz said CSX is putting money into training first responders of the 11 towns along the corridor. “On top of that, they created an app for cell phones where you (first responders only) can go to the app and know what was carried by every car on the train. If the number on the car can be read, the first responder can find out what it’s carrying.” He said it will also tell the first responders what equipment and protective gear they will need as well as how to respond.

Though much media focus is on Bakken Crude Oil, there are many more dangerous materials that are transported by CSX, a good number of them through New Jersey: Explosives, gases, flammable liquids, flammable solids and reactive solids/liquids, blasting agents, detonating substances, compressed gas, poisonous gas, spontaneously combustible material, dangerous-when-wet materials, oxidizers and organic peroxides, poisonous materials, and infectious substances, according to the Association of American Railroads Bureau of Explosives.

With the potential for catastrophic damage, Schmelz said that in the meetings he’s attended with CSX, one of his questions has been how much insurance they have to cover the damage that can result. “In the case of Bergenfield, God forbid there is an accident, it could literally take out our two fire departments, it could take out our borough hall, and it could take out our ambulance and our whole town.” Schmelz added this would be the scenario for almost all small towns.

While most communities are looking into how to prepare for an emergency, they are also concerned about preventing an emergency. Schmelz said CSX has joined in the battle for double-hulled railroad tankers so that accidents such as derailments do not result in leakages, explosions, fires, and devastation to the communities where this can happen.

On May 6, there will be a community meeting at the Richard Rodda Community Center at 7:30 p.m. for residents to meet with and interact with Council members on CSX substandard rail cars and the moratorium against their use proposed by the Teaneck Township Council.

By Anne Phyllis Pinzow

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