By NICOLE ANTONUCCI
The CSX railroad is a distinctive feature of Montgomery County, with tracks running its entire length, from east to west, to allow passage of more than 70 freight trains each day.
Yet, even as the trains rumble through the area like clockwork with a blaring whistle that pierces the air multiple times every hour, municipal and county officials are kept in the dark about what type of materials are actually on the trains, whether they are hazardous or non-hazardous, and how much.
It is an issue that has been given some light recently, as government officials have begun pressuring train companies for more disclosure.
"The federal government made a decision that the railroad has to give the crude oil information to the state emergency office," county Emergency Management Director Jeffery Smith said Friday. "That is fine and dandy, as long as the state provides it to the county."
The U.S. Department of Transportation issued an emergency order Wednesday requiring each railroad operating trains containing more than 1 million gallons of Bakken crude oil, or approximately 35 tank cars, to provide the State Emergency Response Commission notification regarding the expected movement of such trains through counties.
The notification must include estimated volumes of Bakken crude oil being transported, frequencies of anticipated train traffic, and the route through which Bakken crude oil will be transported.
The Emergency Order also requires the railroads provide contact information for at least one responsible party at the host railroads. The Emergency Order advises railroads to assist the SERCs as necessary to share the information with the appropriate emergency responders in affected communities.
"The safety of our nation's railroad system, and the people who live along rail corridors is of paramount concern," Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a release. "All options are on the table when it comes to improving the safe transportation of crude oil, and today's actions, the latest in a series that make up an expansive strategy, will ensure that communities are more informed and that companies are using the strongest possible tank cars."
Yet, under current law, train companies are not required to inform local officials.
Smith said he submitted a request to CSX last month asking for a list of the top ten hazardous materials that pass through the county. He is still waiting.
While CSX does release the information in the event of an emergency situation, Smith said knowing about the contents ahead of time helps to train and prepare emergency service personnel more efficiently.
Last month, county officials met with representatives of CSX to review emergency procedures should a derailment occur, the proper numbers to call, and upcoming training sessions that are being offered in Albany.
County spokesman Andrew Santillo said CSX has become more receptive to concerns regarding the contents of the trains.
"They want to keep up to speed in case something like this does happen, and they want to make sure everyone is up to speed and know how to appropriately respond," he said.
Several calls to CSX for comment were not returned.
In his 25 year public safety career, Smith has seen six train derailments in the county; the most recent occurring in June 2013 in the town of Mohawk after passing east-and -west-bound trains clipped each other.
More than 45 cars derailed in the crash, including cars that ended up stretched across Route 5.
Smith said when there is an incident, it ties up all emergency services, but the impacts vary depending on the situation and where it occurs.
"God forbid if it happens in the city of Amsterdam, or the village of Fonda or Palatine," he said. "You can have road closures. You have to worry about the materials and potential wind carrying those materials, evacuation of homes, and more."
U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said the lack of information about the contents of freight train cars passing through the area is safety risk to local officials.
He called on the federal Department of Transportation to require railroad companies to provide essential emergency responders with accurate real-time information. That information would include the identity and location of hazardous materials on trains.
"The irony is the train companies who transport crude oil send the information to the state," Schumer said in a conference call. "What good is it to know about it in Albany when the train is going through Syracuse or Rochester? It makes no sense and it's unacceptable that potential life-saving information is not being shared."
Most of the freight trains travel on two main rail lines through upstate New York: There is CSX, which runs from Buffalo to Albany before heading south to New York City.
Then, there is Canadian Pacific, which runs from Canada through the north country, Plattsburgh, Lake Champlain, Saratoga Springs, and then down along the Hudson River.
Schumer said having the information on hand would help local firefighters and emergency responders in the event of a derailment or other emergency situation.
"What sparks a fire determines how that fire can be managed. For crude oil or ethanol, the primary cargo on the trains, firefighters may use a foam substance rather than water," he said.
Knowing what is on the trains can also allow emergency responders time to determine how wide to make a containment area, how far to stand from the fire, whether locations near the fire need to be evacuated, etc.
"Every day more and more of these trains and their trademark black soda can cars are barrellng down the tracks through populated areas," Schumer said. "If we don't make it safer, sooner or later we are going to have a horrible incident and that is what I am trying to avoid."