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Crude-by-Rail Operations Threaten to Drown Out Black Community in Albany

Trains loaded with crude oil rumble past the Ezra Prentice Homes in Albany, New York, bringing air and noise pollution along for the ride.

Be Be White and his son Brayton, six years old, stand along the fence that separates the railroad tracks with cars containing hazardous crude oil from Ezra Prentice Homes.
Be Be White and his son Brayton, six years old, stand along the fence that separates the railroad tracks with cars containing hazardous crude oil from Ezra Prentice Homes. (Earthjustice Photographer)

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Rail cars carrying Bakken crude oil bang and clang through the night, yards from Charlene Benton’s home in Albany, New York. The noise keeps her awake, negatively affecting her health, but the racket is only where the trouble begins.

Global Companies, which is responsible for the noise, owns an oil operation at the Port of Albany on the Hudson River, a stone’s throw from Benton’s home. The company quadrupled the amount of oil it moves and processes in 2012, but failed to consider the impacts of the expansion on Benton’s community. Not only did the neighborhood get noisier, Global Companies also violated the Clean Air Act by failing to obtain the proper permits for the expansion, threatening air quality too.

Beyond the noise, Benton’s quality of life is made worse by the stench that comes from processing the crude oil, which forces her to keep her windows closed. Even so, her eyes and throat burn at times and her breathing becomes labored. These days, she avoids spending time outside altogether.

Despite the problems, Benton, who is 63 years old and gets around with the help of a wheelchair, is determined to fight to protect her community.

She lives in the Ezra Prentice Homes where she serves as the president of the tenants association. The Ezra Prentice Homes is a public housing complex with 400 mostly black residents, the majority of whom are children. Homes, health care facilities, parks and churches are also in close proximity to Global’s crude oil operation. In fact, about half the homes at Ezra Prentice are within 100 feet of the facility.

The community where Ezra Prentice Homes is located in Albany’s South End is at Global’s doorstep and has been designated by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) as an “environmental justice area,” a community of color that bears a disproportionate impact from polluting facilities. NYSDEC’s environmental justice policy imposes enhanced public notice and public participation requirements for permit applications that may result in additional pollution in an environmental justice area. However, NYSDEC ignored those requirements when it approved Global’s massive expansion project in 2012. As a result, the disproportionate health impacts on this overwhelmingly African American community were never evaluated.

People living near the Port of Albany already face significant pollution impacts from another crude-by-rail operation, a sewage sludge incinerator and other industrial operations. In fact, people in Albany’s South End are exposed to numerous hazardous air pollutants, including benzene, a component of crude oil and gas that can cause leukemia and other blood cancers.

In 2012, Global was permitted to increase the volume of petroleum products it handles at its Albany facility by a factor of five—from 450 million gallons per year to more than 2 billion gallons per year. Studies have shown, repeatedly, that African Americans, Latinos and other people of color face a greater burden of pollution than white Americans. Did race contribute to Global’s decision to set up its crude-by-rail operation in Albany’s South End? Somehow, time and time again, black communities are seen as suitable places for the stuff no one wants.

Race is more of a determining factor in where pollution is placed than economic class. For instance, in a 2014 study, researchers at the University of Minnesota found that communities of color are exposed to 38 percent higher levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) than white Americans. NO2—emitted by cars, construction equipment, power plants and industrial sources—leads to a higher risk of asthma and heart attacks.

Harmful pollution, including NO2, kills. The NO2 study, according to the Washington Post, showed that the differences in exposure based on race are equivalent to about 7,000 deaths each year from heart disease throughout the nation. Even people of color who fall within the middle class experience more NO2 pollution than their white peers.

In February, Earthjustice sued Global in federal court on behalf of the Ezra Prentice Homes Tenants Association, Albany County and several environmental groups. The suit alleges that Global’s 2012 expansion violated the Clean Air Act because the company failed to obtain an air pollution permit that would have imposed needed pollution controls. The suit also asserts that Global is violating its current air pollution permit by handling crude oil from the Bakken region of North Dakota, which emits more air pollutants than conventional crude oil.

Also in February, Earthjustice, the Ezra Prentice Homes Tenants Association and others called on the Department of Environmental Conservation to conduct an environmental justice analysis of the Port of Albany’s two crude-by-rail operations. The analysis will show the cumulative impacts of these facilities on the neighboring environmental justice community where Charlene Benton lives.

People have a right to breathe clean air. And state agencies issuing pollution permits should ensure that companies don’t place additional health burdens on communities that already face higher rates of pollution, poverty and other social disparities.

The Ezra Prentice Homes Tenants Association and Earthjustice are resolved to continue fighting to protect the health of community residents. But until the courts or the state force Global to make changes to protect the community, Benton must bear the unrelenting noise at night and a diminished quality of life from bad smells and dirty air.

“The noises occur at different times of the day and night, seven days a week, throughout the year,” she says. “The noises that sound like explosions scare me because I am never sure whether the sound is from a bad accident or is just from the rail cars banging into each other.”

Based in Washington, D.C., Keith is the National Communications Strategist for Partnerships and Intersectional Justice.

Established in 2008, Earthjustice’s Northeast Office, located in New York City, is at the forefront of issues at the intersection of energy, environmental health, and social justice.