Over the past two years, during what industry analysts are calling the U.S. energy boom, the Port of Albany has quietly and quickly become one of the east coast’s major crude oil destinations. Bakken crude oil, extracted primarily in North Dakota, is sent to Albany along rail lines and loaded onto ships that travel down the Hudson River, headed for refineries in Philadelphia and New Brunswick. The main rail yard used by the Port of Albany and operated by Massachusetts-based Global Partners lies just feet from the front doors of homes in the Ezra Prentice project, separated by a chain-link fence.

Last July residents gathered on the basketball court for a vigil, marking the one-year anniversary of the Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, train derailment and explosion, which resulted in the deaths of 47 people. The experience of the small lakeside Quebec town looms large for many people in New York’s capital, several hundred miles to the southwest. People in Albany, and particularly those who live in the Ezra Prentice project, worry that what happened to Lac-Mégantic might happen to them.

The July vigil was organized partly by Charlene Benton, a slight and soft-spoken woman originally from Queens, N.Y. Benton is the president of the Ezra Prentice Homes Tenant Homes Association and one of the main voices demanding a moratorium on the shipment of crude oil through Albany’s port. In an interview in her home, Benton said she would have never moved in to the housing project three years ago if she had known about the presence of the crude oil.

“We should have been included from the very beginning,” she said.

The right to breathe freely

One of the main concerns for residents of the Ezra Prentice Homes is the elevated risk of benzene pollutants in the air. Benton suffers from respiratory difficulties, but says her main concern is for the children in the community, whom she says make up 60 per cent of the low-income housing tract.

In an August report detailing samples of the air quality in and around the homes, the state of New York State Department of Environmental Conservation deemed the air to have “no unusual results” in and around Albany’s South End, where the rail yard terminates. On Sept. 30 a prominent public health expert blasted the DEC’s study, criticizing both its methodology and its conclusions. David Carpenter, the director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at State University of New York (Albany) and a frequent collaborator with the World Health Organization, wrote that the DEC’s conclusions about benzene levels were “scientifically unsupportable” based on the size of the sample: five air samples taken across Albany’s South End, in one-hour increments. Carpenter’s report claims that not only is the sample not big enough to draw any conclusions, but also that even the results of the small sample size show levels of benzene with an average of 0.111 parts per billion that exceed the state’s own safe levels of long-term exposure, set at 0.04 parts per billion. (New York state’s short-term safe exposure level is set significantly higher at 400 parts per billion.)

Charlene Benton

“It was a whitewash,” said Chris Amato, a former DEC employee. Amato is now a lawyer with the advocacy group Earth Justice and is representing the Ezra Prentice Homes Tenants Association in a lawsuit against Global Partners and the DEC. The lawsuit calls for a new environmental impact statement to be paid for by Global Partners.

In a statement emailed to Ricochet, DEC spokesperson Jomo Miller wrote, “Although our screening assessment is complete, we are aware of the community concerns regarding odors and will continue to address this issue. In addition, DEC is continuing to follow-up with screening of other air pollutants, formaldehyde and hydrogen sulfide, in the area and will report the results to the community when our assessment is complete.”

Daniel McCoy, Albany’s county executive, explains that the county government, for its part, has contracted Mintz Levin, a Boston-based law firm, to conduct its own air quality review. McCoy is increasingly concerned about the oil trains after two accidents involving rail yards in recent months. In August, a worker abandoned a running bulldozer that had caught on fire, and the runaway machine travelled several miles along an Amtrak rail line, halting train service. Earlier this month, a small passenger plane crashed shortly after taking off, colliding with a railcar in the CSX-owned Selkirk rail yard, just southwest of Albany’s downtown.

“How much do we have to dance with the devil?” McCoy asked in a phone interview.

Misplaced priorities

The Ezra Prentice Homes are located in Albany’s South End, almost literally in the shadow of the downtown buildings that form the state government of New York. It is an irony not lost on Charlene Benton. On a weekend in August, while Gov. Andrew Cuomo made a visit to Israel, Benton wondered why he had not come down South Pearl Street to see the oil trains.

“You went to Israel and you went to [the site of Hurricane] Sandy and you went to all those other communities. What makes us unimportant?”

The Ezra Prentice Homes are predominantly African-American and lower to middle income. “I don’t think this would’ve happened if this were another community,” Benton said, referring to the project’s demographics.

Gloria McKenzie

Benton said this is part of a long-standing pattern of neglect in Albany’s South End, an area she calls the “forgotten community.”

Gloria McKenzie, whose house faces directly onto the train yard, has lived in the Ezra Prentice project for four decades. “I don’t like living like this. No I don’t,” she said.

She does not find comfort in the DEC’s air quality study. “I don’t care,” she said. “I’m still worried. You got all these kids down here.”

Editors’ note: This is part two in a four-part series by Contributing Editor Michael Lee-Murphy examining the impact of bitumen on North America. Watch for parts three and four in the coming weeks at ricochet.media