ELIZABETHTOWN - A spokesman for Canadian Pacific Railway spoke to the Essex County Board of Supervisors Tuesday about railroad safety and the company's response to a potential disaster.
The meeting, held in the Old County Courthouse, was not originally planned to be a hearing for the public, but the county Board of Supervisors decided to open it up after hearing from concerned residents, board Chairman Randy Douglas said. In attendance were several emergency responders, fire chiefs from nearby counties and local residents seeking more information.
Randy Marsh, the railroad's director of government and public affairs, delivered most of the presentation and was joined in answering questions by Ed Greenberg, the director of government and external affairs.
The company owns 14,700 miles of track in Canada and the United States, including a railway that runs from Canada south along Lake Champlain and the upper Hudson River.
"I can't share that with you," Marsh said when asked about details of the company's emergency-response plan.
He said the plan, which would give specifics about the company's response to a train derailment, hazmat situations and accidents, could not be released due to national security concerns.
"Security is a big issue," Marsh said. "There are people out there that want to do us harm."
Marsh said his company is one of the leaders in the industry concerning safety, with the fewest amount of accidents. In general, he said railroads are the safest mode of transportation for hazardous materials.
He spoke at length about the technological advancements that he says have made railways much safer over the years. He added that the company meets and exceeds federal safety regulations.
During a disaster, the local fire chief would be in charge of an emergency scene and the company would assist with resources, Marsh said.
After the hearing, Port Henry Fire Chief James Hughes said he questioned local fire departments' preparedness to handle hazmat situations of a disaster of severe magnitude - like an oil tanker derailment and explosion last year in Lac Magentic, Quebec, which killed 47 people.
"We have plans in motion, evacuation, or how to contain whatever is burning," Hughes said. "I have made an appeal to Essex County hazmat ... but it's going to have to be a team response."
Hughes said a collective response should include the state, county, Canadian Pacific Railway and local emergency responders. In Port Henry, the railway runs through the village. Hughes said the fire department is tasked with covering an 8-mile stretch of the track.
Crown Point town Supervisor Charles Harrington knows firsthand about the potential danger of railroads, having been in a train when it hit a vehicle. He raised concerns to the company about the safety of railroad crossings, speaking about an accident in February.
"I was on the train. The floor started bouncing up and down," Harrington said. "The conductor said, 'Ladies and gentlemen we've hit some debris.'"
He said at some parts of the railroad, cars are dangerously close to the tracks and there is no boundary dividing the two.
"I know they put a lot of safety into their business," Harrington said. "But I also know some of these railroad crossings are compromising."
Phasing out older tankers
Marsh said that Hunter Harrison, Canadian Pacific's CEO, wants all DOT-111 tanker cars to be retrofitted or retired immediately. The company has added a $315 surcharge on its tracks for older tankers, like DOT-111, that do not meet more modern safety standards. However, the tankers meet federal standards, so the company cannot legally deny their access to the railway, Marsh said. The company does not own or design tankers.
"Our hands are tied," Marsh said. "We could be fined. Those sorts of issues are outside of our control."
The questions from the public were focused on a potential increase in shipments of oil and the safety of the DOT-111 car. The Port of Albany is becoming a major thoroughfare for crude oil coming from North Dakota.
George Newell, train master in Saratoga, was at the meeting and told the board that oil shipments by rail vary day to day.
"Oil and ethanol (shipments) is not daily," Newell said. "One day we can run two or three, and another there could be none."
Marsh was peppered with quite a few questions and admittedly did not have the answers for all of them. When asked if the company plans to increase shipments, he did not give any specific details.
Douglas closed the meeting by saying that he appreciated the company's presentation and that they went above and beyond what they needed to do. Hughes also said Marsh was very informative.
Marsh believed his presentation was well received.
"If you're not operating safely, you're not staying in business," Marsh said. "It is important leaders and (emergency) responders know the context of how we operate.
"It's absolutely essential we operate safely. It's more important than just a cost issue. We need to make sure our employees get home for work."