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Planning for a Crude Awakening

Emergency management responders appear when disaster strikes, and some are stepping up their game

Dan Wears was in his first week on the job as head of emergency services for Syracuse University when two train cars overturned within walking distance of the Carrier Dome. One car was loaded with propane. The Dome was about to open its doors to tens of thousands of fans attending a football game against South Florida.

That was four years ago. Last month Wears took the helm of emergency management for Onondaga County, and in his third week on the job, a downpour caused flash flooding in a number of communities and a lightning strike took out the county’s main 911 response center. Wears didn’t seem rattled by either event: Dealing with the dangerous and the unexpected is just what he does.

Wears, a 31-year-old resident of the town of Clay, was first drawn to emergency management when he watched the community response to the 1998 ice storm in Ogdensburg. Wears exudes cool, calm and collected, and when he talks about potential catastrophes, he speaks of efficiency, communication and coordination. He likes the challenge of maintaining the “moving parts” of an operation that involves dozens of agencies and municipalities.

Wears steps into the county one job at a time when some of the greatest threats come not from natural disasters, but from toxic and dangerous cargo that travel through the area every day. He had barely found his way around his new digs in the sub-basement of the Mulroy Civic Center when I met with him to talk about the 16 million gallons of volatile crude oil that pass through the county every week.

That figure comes from Albany County Executive Dan McCoy. The crude travels from North Dakota’s Bakken region and ends up in Albany, where it’s shipped on barges down the Hudson. Unlike conventional crude oil, which leaks when there’s a wreck, Bakken Shale oil can blow up and catch fire in a derailment. Thus far Syracuse and New York state have been just plain lucky: Nothing catastrophic has happened here yet.

Local emergency managers have stepped up their game. There is a foam tender with a specialized firefighting foam stationed in Minoa, ready to be deployed anywhere in the county. Firefighters around the county have conducted training sessions with CSX, the main rail company that ships oil through here. Plans are in the works for a larger-scale training exercise.

As for evacuation drills, Wears says that those are not contemplated for now, even though evacuation of up to a half-mile from the tracks is the first step recommended in case of a fire or explosion involving crude oil. The county continues to trust that procedures put in place for communicating with the public in the event of a spill are sufficient. (Wears reminds us that the game at the Dome went on as planned in spite of the propane car derailment. The train was safely removed after South Florida finished clobbering the Orange, 37-17.)

The truth is that we are at the mercy of the federal government in this regard. Neither the state, the county, nor your town or village has any say in what comes down the railroad tracks.

The feds have taken only token actions. National regulations now require the trains to slow down when they pass through busy towns, and oblige the railroads to build safer tanker cars – a plan that will take, by their own estimate, up to eight years to implement. Eight years is a long time to keep your fingers crossed.

Frank Cetera isn’t waiting eight years. The West Side resident and Green Party Common Council candidate for the 2nd District organized what he called a “Bomb TrainSpotting 24 Hour Encampment and Teach-In” on July 10. A few dozen people gathered to commemorate the second anniversary of the Lac-Megantic, Quebec, oil train explosion that killed 47 people, and to say, in Cetera’s words, “No more exploding trains. No more tar sands. No more Russian roulette with our communities and our climate.”

That night there were no confirmed sightings of oil trains, most of which traverse the region miles north of where his group was camped. There was drumming, ukulele picking, and talk of a day when we wouldn’t need to plan what to do if a train hurtling through town turned into a bomb.

Header photo by Michael Davis of the Syracuse New Times.

Ed Griffin-Nolan

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