Crude intentions: UAlbany professor dismisses DEC report, argues oil train fumes cause cancer
By Kyle Plaske
Senior Staff Writer
Nov 11, 2014
South End residents are subject to an increased risk of developing cancer and other health problems resulting from prolonged exposure to hazardous fumes associated with crude oil operations at the neighboring Port of Albany, according to a recent report submitted to the Department of Environmental Conservation by Dr. David Carpenter, director of the University at Albany School of Public Health.
The report challenges the Aug. 14 “Albany South End Community Air Quality Screening,” in which the DEC concluded that there were no unusual concentrations of toxic air contaminants found in the area, adding that the measured concentrations were similar to those measured in other urban areas of New York state.
“On the basis of extremely limited air sampling,” Carpenter wrote, “it is scientifically insupportable for DEC to draw any conclusions regarding potential human health risks in the South End.”
The Carpenter report intensifies the ongoing public debate over the safety and environmental impact of crude oil transport by rail through Albany, which has recently become a major northeast hub for highly combustible Bakken crude oil drilled from the North Dakota shale fields. As of 2014, the DEC allows up to 2.8 billion gallons of crude oil to move through the port annually.
The DEC is currently considering whether to allow Global Companies—the Massachusetts-based petroleum distributer that operates a key processing terminal at the Port—to modify its existing air permit to allow the heating of crude oil and other bio fuels in rail tank cars and storage facilities, which the company said is necessary to reduce the viscosity of substances and streamline its transfer processes.
Residents of the Ezra Prentice Homes, a public housing development located on 625 South Pearl St. adjacent to the rail yard, began reaching out to public officials and local activists last year to raise their mounting health and safety concerns.
In response, the DEC collected one-hour air samples from the South End over the course of five days during May. The samples were analyzed for the presence of Volatile Organic Compounds—chemicals that evaporate easily into the air—including benzene, a natural component of crude oil and a known human carcinogen.
Carpenter stated in the report that the DEC incorrectly compared its samples to the short-term benzene exposure standard, which he argued, does not provide an accurate assessment of potential public health risks for residents subject to chronic exposure.
“The air quality monitoring results show that benzene levels in 20 out of 21 samples exceeded the long term benzene exposure standard,” Carpenter wrote. “These results are particularly troubling in light of research showing that even low levels of exposure to benzene may have serious health impacts.”
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the health effects of short-term benzene exposure include dizziness, headaches, tremors, and unconsciousness. The health effects of long-term exposure—defined by the CDC as exposure lasting for a year or more—include anemia (a decrease in red blood cell production) and leukemia (cancer of the blood forming organs.)
“The sense I get from people in the community is that they don’t know who to trust,” Carpenter said in a recent interview. “They’re scared and they feel that their community is being neglected.”
Carpenter has attended two public information meetings hosted by the DEC to voice his concerns from a public health standpoint, arguing that allowing Global’s request to heat its tank cars would intensify local exposure to toxic fumes and increase resident’s vulnerability to developing serious health problems.
“You don’t want people continuously exposed to something that’s known to cause cancer,” he said.
Dorcey Applyrs, a recent UAlbany School of Public Health graduate and current Albany Common Council member for the First Ward, reiterated Carpenter’s sentiment that many South End residents feel that their community is being overlooked.
“People are frustrated and fearful for their lives,” Applyrs said. “They want answers from the DEC and many feel that the process has been delayed, some speculate for political reasons.
She stressed that while not all of the health problems in the community could be definitively attributed to the emissions coming from the Port, many residents have reported headaches, problems breathing, depression, and anxiety.
“Ezra Prentice is an affordable housing community, it’s a low income community,” Applyrs said. “I think it’s been labeled enough.”
Charlene Benton, president of the Ezra Prentice Homes Tenant Association has been an advocate for the health and safety of community residents for three years, acting as the development’s spokesperson at community meetings and encouraging tenants to become more involved in the public debate.
“A lot of people here think it’s dragging on,” Benton said. “They think no one cares and that the DEC isn’t going to do anything.”
Benton said she first noticed the oil fumes two years ago, recalling that many tenants kept their windows shut throughout the warm summer months (most units are without air conditioning) to try to avoid the unrelenting odor.
After the July 2013 incident in Lac Megantic, Quebec—during which a 74-car freight train carrying Bakken crude oil derailed and exploded, killing 42 residents and demolishing over 30 buildings near the
town’s center—Benton rallied members of the community to demand new regulations for tank cars and to urge the DEC and the City of Albany to safeguard South End residents who would be most susceptible in the event of a major accident.
“When the DEC said that our air was no different than the air in other urban areas, it infuriated a lot of people,” Benton said. “I thought it was ludicrous and insulting to the community.”
She argues that the DEC misled the public and that an outside organization should be brought in to conduct a thorough long-term air quality assessment in the neighborhood. She also recommends that health studies be preformed immediately in order to gauge the effects of resident’s prolonged exposure to the fumes (Benton herself will have lived in the development for four years this March.)
“It concerns me that nobody raised questions about any of this,” she said. “We need health services down here and we need the DEC to respond to Dr. Carpenter’s findings.”
Ahead of its pending decision regarding Global’s permit modification, DEC has extended the period for public comments, for the sixth time, to Nov. 30. In addition a public meeting hosted by Global representatives is slated for Nov. 13 at St. John’s Church in the South End.
“I expect a repeat performance from Global,” Benton said. “They’ll answer the questions that they choose to answer.”
Despite recurrent setbacks and the seeming inaction from local lawmakers, Benton remains steadfast in her objective. “I’m 63 years old and I feel that I’ve been upfront in this fight,” she said. “Sometimes I can’t help but feel that I’ve had enough.”
“But I’m still optimistic. I have to be.”