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Oil transport on Lake Champlain lines sparks environmental fears

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ELIZABETHTOWN — Oil transport on the railroad line along Lake Champlain is cause for growing environmental concern.

So says the Adirondack Council, which has documented several worn out crossings in an online photo essay.

And the green group recently delivered its photos with concerns to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Planners at EPA responded, inviting the Adirondack Council to work with them in strengthening a spill-response plan.

The letter, sent from the director of the EPA Emergency and Remedial Response Division, Walter Mugdan, recounts numerous training exercises held with first responders over the past few years.

PRIORITY AREAS

It also says more than 500 miles of Canadian Pacific and CSX railroad lines “will be evaluated to prioritize the development of specific tactical response plans” over the next few months.

“These priority areas will be based upon proximity of potential spill locations to population centers and environmentally sensitive areas, all of which will be mapped for tactical spill-response planning,” Mugdan said.

The work is expected to be completed by the end of this summer.

MORE TRAINS COMING

But train traffic is set to increase in the near future.

Essex County Emergency Services has an established site-by-site first-response plan for hazardous train spills in the region. It has updated the plan for many years.

Emergency Services Director Don Jaquish said there are about 20 oil trains moving back and forth along the line every week.

“They are planning at least a threefold increase,” he said.

And many residents have noticed piles of new railroad ties and heavy equipment staged at crossings for miles of rails that run along Lake Champlain.

“CP Rail is rebuilding the line now from Montreal to Albany,” Jaquish said. “They’re putting new rails in to make it safer. They’re spending a lot of money to rebuild the railroad line, using seamless rails instead of segments of railroad track.”

GATED CROSSINGS

Jaquish said the county wants to see more crossings with gates and warning lights.

“But train traffic is planned to increase. People are going to have to be more aware, more vigilant about what’s going on,”

CP Rail told Essex County supervisors recently that the track upgrade is expected to be completed by fall and that oil train traffic will increase gradually.

EMERGENCY PLANNING

Essex and Clinton counties have evacuation plans for specific areas in the event of any oil or hazardous-materials car derailment.

Evacuation zones extend a half-mile around the tracks, Jaquish said.

Adirondack Council spokesman John F. Sheehan documented uneven tracks and aged infrastructure all along the Adirondack stretch of railroad line.

He said the council’s role would likely be to help EPA locate sensitive environmental and wildlife areas and drinking-water supplies.

“I think our role would be in addition to first responders and emergency services,” Sheehan said.

“We would be identifying sensitive areas on their maps that most need protection: important wildlife habitat, drinking-water sources and where they could expect to encounter difficulty because of wetlands and that sort of thing.”

The EPA plan is expected to go to public hearing sessions this fall.

THREAT TO LAKE

The railroad line travels close to the entire western shore of Lake Champlain.

“In a way, the tracks are so close to the lake that it’s hard to separate it from the lake,” Sheehan said.

“I think EPA is trying to work with the communities and the state to determine what happens on Lake Champlain. “But our main concern at this point was to make sure the proper agencies are aware of the problem.”

Sheehan and Jaquish both admit there would be no easy solution to any oil spill or fire situation on the tracks here.

“Not that there’s any way to solve the problem if there’s a spill anywhere along Lake Champlain,” Sheehan said.

“It’s basically a pipeline on rails,” Jaquish said. “We call them unit trains, because they carry one product — oil.

“We have a generic process for spills. But the logistics of putting out an oil-car fire is daunting.”

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