Albany Opposes Pilgrim Oil Pipelines in Late Night Vote
Community to Council: “We Aim to Stop These Pipelines”
The City of Albany Common Council voted on Monday, May 16th to oppose the Pilgrim oil pipelines, two proposed pipelines which would begin and end in Albany, New York. A standing-room-only crowd, 18 of whom testified against what one speaker called the “preposterous Pilgrim pipelines,” packed into City Hall at 7 PM. The energetic crowd, including Ezra Prentice Homes residents, faith leaders, union members, health professionals, and environmental and climate justice advocates, toughed it out in the increasingly warm and airless chamber until the vote was called at 11:15 PM. “That was a real nail-biter,” commented Albany resident Roger Downs, Conservation Chair, Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter, after the vote. Downs had been the first to testify in favor of the Resolution Opposing Pilgrim Pipelines, more than four hours earlier.
“I’ve never seen as grave an injustice as I’ve seen at Ezra Prentice Homes,” testified Willie White, AVillage Executive Director, referring to the residents in a predominantly African American neighborhood in Albany’s South End, where oil trains rumble 30 feet from a children’s playground while off-gassing from the Global facility and oil trains has led to negative health impacts. “We’ve already got the oil trains, hundreds of diesel trucks, Route 787, Global’s oil heating facility… It’s a travesty. If we really take a moral look at this, it’s not just a dollar bill, it’s people’s lives. We have a right to clean water too, clean air too, and we aim to stop these pipelines.”
Time-Warner Cable posted video of Willie White speaking during the extraordinary Common Council meeting: Albany Common Council Opposes Pilgrim Pipelines.
“We Should Not Increase the Risk”
The oil trains currently carrying about 35,000 barrels per day into Albany would “quintuple” in order to service the Pilgrim oil pipelines if they were to be built, according to research presented by Stephen Shafer, MD, MPH, to the Common Council.
Albany resident Gregory Bell told the Council, “Albany is struggling financially. From a budget perspective, any substantial spill or exploding rail car would be too costly. The Kalamazoo [River in Michigan] cleanup has cost $3 billion so far, and it’s not over. The cleanup cost in Lac Megantic [Canadian town destroyed by an oil train explosion] is $2.7 billion so far. Should Pilgrim pipelines be built, we would see a four to six times increase in oil train quantity here. We should not increase the risk. This Council should pass this Resolution.”
Sitting in rows, standing wherever space appeared, and even sitting on the tile floor, community members clapped frequently after residents’ testimony, despite repeated admonishments from the Council leadership not to clap.
It’s Our Health: Environmental Racism and City-Wide Impacts
Health concerns and environmental racism related to the proposed Pilgrim oil pipelines took center stage throughout much of the night.
Portia Gaddy, an Ezra Prentice resident for 15 years, said, “I want to be part of the Committee to stop the pipelines, part of the work, because I’m going through health issues. I’ve got children, grandchildren with asthma. I love my surroundings but I can’t live with my surroundings… I’m a victim, I’m affected. Everywhere you turn, there’s trains.”
The fourth person to testify, Deneen Carter-El, an Ezra Prentice Homes resident, said, “My biggest concern is the health problems: cancer, asthma, respiratory, sinus. I’ve lived there over 20 years, and I don’t want this in my backyard. Trains are running again despite the [Breakfree Albany] rally and I don’t want them any more. We have thousands of residents: elders, children, people with disabilities.”
Two days before the Albany Common Council vote, 2,000 people rallied in Albany to “break free” from fossil fuels, with 500 marching through the Ezra Prentice Homes neighborhood in solidarity and support, hundreds more risking arrest on the bomb train tracks at the Global facility where Pilgrim pipelines would begin and end. Five were arrested while blocking an oil bomb train in Guilderland, just north of Albany.
The Reverend Peter Cook, Albany resident and Executive Director of the New York State Council of Churches, which serves over 7,000 congregations, asked the Albany Common Council to pass the Resolution Opposing Pilgrim pipelines. “A much greater volume of oil would flow, with more trains. The pipelines pose a tremendous risk to waterways. It would be profoundly unjust… I was a pastor with the United Church of Christ, which did a groundbreaking study of environmental racism. Those communities which have no political clout or money are hurt the worst. We must value the diversity of our community. We must care for each other.”
Delora Bascombe, a community health outreach worker, testified that she was “also here as a mother, citizen, neighbor, and member of the SUNY academic community in the field of public health. The VOCs — volatile organic chemicals — which would increase if Pilgrim pipelines were to be built, would impact South End residents acutely but would affect the whole City of Albany due to thermal inversion,” she said. “Thermal inversion is what happens when poisons released into the atmosphere settle over our entire city, and that would impact everyone in this room,” she explained.
Reverend McKenzie Johnson, speaking fourteenth, asserted, “Areas of the South End are under attack. We are being attacked by greed, by indecision, by air, by land, and now with the Pilgrim pipelines, by both. Even brand new pipelines leak; corrosion starts quickly. It’s not the inspectors that find the leaks, it’s a passerby that found the last major oil pipeline leak.” Emphasizing Albany’s high-density population in the South End, McKenzie said that compared to the oil train explosion in Lac Megantic, which killed 47 people, “if an explosion happens here, 1000 or more people could be killed.” In terms of oil leaks, he said, “Pilgrim pipelines would be worse than trains or trucks. Vote YES on the Resolution Opposing Pilgrim.”
Full disclosure: this blogger also testified. “I organize with the Coalition Against Pilgrim Pipelines-NY, and we are working with 38 municipalilties along the direct route of the proposed Pilgrim pipelines. Albany would be hurt the worst, in five ways. There would be a five-fold increase in oil trains coming into Albany, but the DEC might segment their environmental review, taking no notice of the oil trains increase. The pipelines would be drilled right under the Hudson River twice, threatening the Albany waterfront for 40-80 years. First responders in Albany would be stressed and stretched to respond to an oil bomb train explosion, pipeline spill or other emergency Pilgrim pipelines might create. Environmental justice communities, such as Ezra Prentice Homes, have already had more than they can take but would be hit hard by Pilgrim. And in terms of air quality, Albany is already out of compliance with federal ozone regulations.
“In the big picture, everyone’s health is at risk, from cradle to grave, from fracking and flaring, trains and pipelines, to refining which makes people sick, to the end use, which increases climate chaos. Oil use in New York State is declining,” this blogger concluded, “so we don’t need these oil pipelines.”
Jobs, Water, and the Big Picture: All This for Four Jobs?
“We need more jobs with sustainable energy instead of hurting already overburdened communities of color,” said Albany resident Jessica, the tenth to testify. “Pilgrim Pipelines would create only 50 permanent jobs in all of New York and New Jersey, with maybe four of those jobs in Albany. Those are specialized jobs, so they would probably bring in people from out of state. There’s no justification for the harms Pilgrim pipelines would bring to human health, our economy, water, properties, and wildlife.”
“I oppose the Pilgrim pipelines and agree with all who spoke. I want to stress the water,” said Albany Resident Carol, the 13th to testify. “In Hoosic Falls, in Flint, and all around the world, water is being poisoned. Over 200 bodies of water would be drilled through by the Pilgrim Pipelines. Let’s get smart about the value of our water and say NO.”
Both Pilgrim Pipeline Holdings LLC’s President and Vice President are former Koch Industries executives. In 2000, Koch Industries received what was at that time the biggest fine in EPA history, when the EPA aggregated together 300 of their oil pipeline spills and fined Koch Industries $30 million.
“I am a member of the teachers’ union, the American Federation of Teachers; the National Education Association; and an AFL-CIO local, so I am a sibling with my fellow union members here,” began Mary Finneran, a Cairo resident who spoke out of her experience. “I just found out my childhood home… was toxic. After Corning left, working class buildings were built on that poisoned site; my mother had terrible asthma, my brother had learning disabilities and nosebleeds,” said Finneran. “This is not normal. I can just imagine the children at Ezra Prentice starting to think their health impacts are normal, but it’s not. Can we blame anyone here who allows the Pilgrim pipelines without taking future health risks into consideration? Yes. We can.”
The 16th speaker, Bill Walsh of the Capitol Region Building Trades, engineers’ union, and Teamsters, was the first and only speaker who expressed reservations about the Resolution Opposing Pilgrim Pipelines. “We haven’t had time to look into it,” Walsh said. “Many people here tonight have specific data, and pertinent information, but it’s not adequate information. I ask that you table this Resolution so we can have our point of view heard.”
“Real Democracy is Messy”
Things got even more interesting after Bill Walsh’s testimony. Chris, the 17th speaker, said he has lived, worked and raised children in Albany since 1973. “Thank you for extending the comment period,” he made a point of appreciating the Common Council for their decision to extend the comment period for another hour after 9 PM. “Real democracy is messy,” he commented.
Chris described what it took to successfully defeat a medical waste incinerator and a high sulfur coal plant in Albany. He said that Albany’s history of successfully repelling toxic projects shows the industry assaults ceased when “word got out we are well organized.”
Now, Chris said, the Capitol District is being targeted anew for environmentally toxic industries because “we are seen as being desperate and poor.”
“The oil trains and pipelines and tar sands heating facility — all are connected,” he said. “The floodgates are open. Oil trains, Pilgrim pipelines are just as bad [as earlier toxic projects], another form of environmental racism,” he observed.
Drawing a lesson from the past, Chris commented, goes against tabling the Resolution or being slow to act. “The way we defeated those projects was, the Mayor came out strong. Unless you put your foot down and stand with the Mayor,” he implored the Council, “we can’t do it without all of you.”
Word on the street, going into the contentious four-hour meeting, had been that a group of Councilmembers planned to vote “No,” or abstain from voting “Yes,” on the Resolution Opposing Pilgrim pipelines not on principle, but because they didn’t want to vote “for” a resolution Mayor Kathy Sheehan supports. As in, petty power politics.
Diana Wright, representing People of Albany United for Safe Energy (PAUSE), pointed out that “Governor Cuomo banned fracking due to health and environmental impacts. We are already being affected by combustion of fossil fuels. I can’t imagine a more pressing issue,” she said. “Breakfree was momentous: people came from as far away as Oregon, Canada, and Minnesota to attend Breakfree Albany, and we are all together, white and people of color. Now we have an historic chance to stop a pair of new fracked fossil fuel pipelines,” she concluded.
Finally, Tina Lieberman, a resident of Albany’s 14th Ward, was the 19th and final speaker, since many of the 30 who had signed up to testify had gone home. “The Pilgrim pipelines would deeply impact my quality of life. The Pilgrim pipelines representative is very clear that their goal is to reach their carrying capacity of 200,000 barrels per day, per pipeline, for two pipelines. But remember 2014? Those trains were snaking around everywhere. It was beginning to look like an industrial wasteland. 2014 was just 100,000 barrels per day! You want twice that?”
“I heard a Lac Megantic survivor,” Tina said, describe what it was like when 47 people were instantly incinerated by a huge fireball. “The blast zone is half a mile, and taxpayers would foot the bill,” she said. “This is the time to take a stand. Tabling this Resolution is as good as a No vote, and we will hold you accountable. We expect to see you take responsibility to protect Albany, and vote Yes for the Resolution Opposing Pilgrim Pipelines.”
After another hour of speeches, the Common Council did pass the Resolution, with nine votes Yes, zero votes No, and six votes “Present.” The bizarre “present” votes are abstentions from Councilmembers (who may have been swayed by the intense pressure from John Casselini, Pilgrim’s well-connected lobbyist in Albany, for weeks leading up to the vote) who might like to avoid the wrath of their constituents by, well, at least not voting “no” on the resolution opposing the pipelines.
If that quadruple negative is confusing, you can find partial explanations and a complete breakdown of who voted which way in the Albany’s newspaper, the Times Union. Even the regular press found the “present” votes “weird”:
On Friday May 13th, two days before the vote, about 50 kayak-wielding activists took a few hours to defend the cities of Albany and Rensselaer from the new wave of fossil fuel infrastructure threatening the Hudson River, including the Pilgrim pipelines and its associated increase in oil “bomb trains.” Maybe you don’t have the stamina for hours-long legislative meetings to defend your homes, your water, and your lives? You can also get out on the river to take a stand.
Twenty-six New York Municipalities Stand Up to Big Oil
The nine-to-nothing vote made Albany the 26th municipality in New York State to pass Resolutions Opposing Pilgrim pipelines, joining the Town of Bethlehem in Greene County and the Village and Town of Woodbury in Orange County among the most recent additions to the list.
The two pipelines, proposed by a corporation whose two principals are both former Koch Industries executives, would carry Bakken Shale oil and/or tar sands dilbit south from Albany to Linden, New Jersey. In Linden, no refinery has yet signified any desire or ability to handle the massive 200,000 barrels per day carrying capacity of the Pilgrim pipelines, suggesting to DeSmogBlog that export may be the pipelines’ primary purpose.
A second pipeline would run northbound, parallel to and in the same ditch as the crude oil pipeline, expected to carry gasoline, jet fuel, kerosene, heating oil and diesel. However, Pilgrim representatives have admitted the northbound pipeline’s flow could be reversed and it could be repurposed to carry just about anything, including more crude oil, southbound for marine terminals.
Once in the ground, local communities – and possibly even state and national governments, if international export contracts are signed, due to the trend of current trade treaties to give supranational powers to corporations – would have no control over what corporation might maintain the pipelines, whether they are indemnified, what is put into the pipelines, where the fuel comes from, how it is extracted, where it is shipped, nor any meaningful way to limit the pipelines’ long-term health, safety, environmental, climate and social justice impacts.
The Last Word: “A Unified Message to the Pipeline Companies”
The Reverend Marc Johnson, Associate Pastor, Greater St. John’s Church, commented after the Albany victory, “By passing this resolution it sets the tone for our community and city that we don’t want the pipelines to be installed at any time! We send a unified message to the pipeline companies from the beginning that they are not welcomed here. If an issue is killed at the root, we don’t have to worry about about the production of the fruit.”