We Must Act to Protect Lake Champlain from an Oil-by-Rail Disaster

Most Vermonters are aware that our state legislature recently passed – and Vermont Governor Shumlin signed – ambitious legislation aimed at cleaning up Lake Champlain and the state’s rivers and streams.  At the same time, many state leaders are talking about putting a price on carbon-based fuels to account for the true cost of these increasingly dangerous energy sources.

Despite this good news, we’ve got a problem. Just across Lake Champlain, in New York, poorly regulated oil trains rumble along old rail lines and bridges just yards from the shore, posing a serious threat to the lake and the communities that surround it.

An Unprecedented Threat to the Lake

train tracks along the banks of Lake Champlain
Jake Brown of VNRC stands along tracks that currently carry dangerous oil cars along the banks of Lake Champlain. Photo by Jim Murphy NWF.
Recently, representatives from the National Wildlife Federation, Vermont Natural Resources Council, the Adirondack Council, the Sierra Club, and the Lake Champlain Committee, stood on the banks of Lake Champlain in Port Kent, New York, just yards from a Canadian Pacific railway line, and issued a sharp warning: a spill or explosion along Lake Champlain could be a major environmental disaster and an unprecedented tragedy for area residents.

Kalamazoo, Michigan
Great blue heron covered in oil from the Enbridge oil spill in Kalamazoo represents the negative impacts oil has on wildlife. Photo by David Kenyon
Currently, trains of the thin-walled black tankers – so called DOT-111 cars – carry tens of millions of gallons of crude oil from places like North Dakota to Albany. Much of that oil is highly volatile Bakken crude. Bakken crude was what caught fire in July 2013 when a train derailed and exploded in southern Quebec killing 47 people and gutting downtown Lac Megantic, close to Maine.

The domestic oil boom in the U.S. and Canada has trains running like never before across the continent. According to the Association of American Railroads, between 2006 and 2015 the amount of crude oil and refined petroleum products transported on U.S. rail lines has nearly tripled.

As should be expected, the increase in rail transport has lead to an increase in accidents. In 2013, more crude oil (1.15 million gallons) was spilled from train accidents than was spilled in all of the years between 1975 and 2012 (800,000 gallons) combined. So far this year, there have been train accidents and associated crude oil fires and spills in West Virginia, Illinois, North Dakota and two in Ontario, Canada.

Industry Plans to Move Tar Sands Along the Lake

A tar sands spill in Mayflower, Arkansas in March of 2013. Photo by AJ Zolten
Now, a Massachusetts-based firm, Global Partners, has proposed adding a heating and pumping facility to an Albany oil storage and transfer plant. This would allow the plant heat Canadian tar sands oil – that nasty, climate-busting stuff that comes from Alberta and really should stay in the ground – so it could be more easily shipped.

The plan would clear the way for the same train line to carry this heavy oil that is strip mined from vast stretches of boreal forests into the market. Mining and then burning this oil is pumping massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, so much so that former NASA climatologist James Hansen said that if Alberta’s tar sands oil is extracted and burned, it will be “game over for the planet.”

We Must Protect the Lake from Dangerous Oil Transport

Some argue that slowing oil-by-rail shipments will increase the pressure for pipelines, like the Keystone XL Pipeline, or the use of the Portland Montreal Pipeline that runs across the Northeast Kingdom. That notion is based on the false assumption that we have no choice but to double down on dirty fuel, digging it up and hauling it around in ever-greater quantities. For the sake of the climate, clean water, and the safety of our communities, we’ve simply got to phase out our addiction to fossil fuels. Throttling back – not up – is the only option.

Specifically in terms of shipping oil by rail, NWF has called for an immediate moratorium on the shipments along Lake Champlain until safety can be guaranteed. VNRC agrees. Given the progress we are making on cleaning up Lake Champlain – and the growing urgency to deal with climate change – allowing this threat to remain makes no sense.

Brian shupe headshot for press largerjpgAbout the Author: Brian Shupe, Executive Director of NWF Vermont affiliate Vermont Natural Resources Council