by Susan Hellauer
Before the 20th century, the Hudson River was its region’s principle highway of commerce. Sleek sloops, schooners and steam-towed barges picked up and dropped off factory goods, textiles, vegetables, ice, lumber, bricks, oysters, whiskey, tools, seeds — everything to stock the general stores of villages and growing cities.
Today, tugboats shove cargo barges up and downriver, most carrying refined heating oil, gasoline, or crushed stone. They’ve been joined lately by more (and larger) oil tankers and barges. They carry crude oil from North Dakota via the Port of Albany, then south to East Coast ports and refineries.
The sailing ships of yesteryear were a crucial link in local trade, but today’s crude oil tankers and barges bring very little besides a few jobs, and nothing to enrich the lives of Hudson Valley residents.
Now, shipping industry representatives have asked the Coast Guard to establish new anchorage fields for tugs, tankers and barges in the Hudson, from Yonkers to Kingston. The outcry against the proposed anchorages from environmental watchdog groups, elected officials, and citizens has been fierce.
Here are the basic questions and answers behind the headlines.
Who requested the proposed new anchorages?
The Maritime Association of the Port of New York/New Jersey Tug & Barge Committee, an industry association that represents tugboat companies that move crude oil barges.
The American Waterways Operators, a national tugboat and barge trade association, supports the proposed anchorages. They are also being sought by the Hudson River Port Pilots Association.
On January 21, 2016, in a letter to the District Coast Guard Commander.
Where will the proposed anchorage fields be located?
Ten anchorage fields have been proposed, with a total of 43 “parking spaces,” covering about 2000 square feet. They would be located at Kingston Flats South, Port Ewen, Big Rock Point, Milton, Roseton, Marlboro, Newburgh, Tompkins Cove, Montrose Point, and Yonkers. There is currently only one federally-designated anchorage—off Hyde Park—between Yonkers and Albany.
Why do shipping industry groups say they need new anchorages?
Hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) allows otherwise inaccessible oil fields to be productive. The technique began to revive the sagging U.S. oil industry in 2008, creating a surplus of crude oil, much of it from the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota. Since 2011, transport of this highly combustible liquid has caused numerous spills, 11 fiery freight rail explosions, and 47 deaths. Bakken crude travels in mile-long “bomb trains” over CSX rail tracks through NY State and the heart of Rockland County. Some of it is offloaded to tanker ships and barges at the Port of Albany.
Before 2016, this crude oil cargo was destined solely for domestic refineries, mainly in New Jersey. But the oil glut had petro industry heads eagerly eyeing overseas markets for big profits. They lobbied for the overturn of the crude oil export ban, in place since the oil-embargo, long-gas-line days of 1973. In December 2015, Congress passed a spending bill that includes a Republican-supported repeal of the ban. (The bill also contains renewable energy support measures aimed at garnering Democratic support.) In January, President Obama signed the bill into law.
With the export ban lifted, infrastructure for extraction and transportation of shale oil is now rapidly being built out. The ETP pipeline now being protested in North Dakota by local Native Americans and their supporters is meant to carry Bakken crude to market.
The groups requesting new anchorages support their case by citing the anticipated increase in Bakken crude traffic. More river parking spaces would alleviate traffic jams at the Port of Albany’s crude oil terminals, where tankers and barges are loaded for the journey south to ports for foreign export.
Who can grant and establish the proposed anchorages fields?
The Hudson River is a federal waterway, designated as a United States of America Blue Highway M-87. The US Coast Guard District Command is authorized to establish anchorages on federal waterways within its jurisdiction.
When would the anchorages be made available?
Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer Allyson Conroy stated in an email on 9/26/16:
The Coast Guard is in the Advance Notice to Public Rule Making (ANPRM), a preliminary phase of any rule changing. Once the comment phase closes for this ANPRM, all of the comments generated from regulations.gov will be analyzed. If the Coast Guard decides to move forward with any of the proposed anchorages, a Proposed Anchorage Rule will be developed, with a 120-day notice of proposed rulemaking advertisement in the Federal Register, extensive National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) evaluation, and public meetings, with the final Anchorage Ruling expected in Early 2018.
Who is opposed to the anchorages?
The plan is opposed by environmental groups like Scenic Hudson, the Sierra Club, and Riverkeeper, a long list of state and local elected officials (including NY Senators Schumer and Gillibrand), and many concerned citizens. The response to the Coast Guard’s request for public comment has been so vigorous that the deadline has been moved back from Sept. 7 to Dec. 6, 2016.
What are the objections from environmental watchdog groups?
Any threat to re-industrialize the recovering Hudson puts watchdog groups on ultra-high alert. Riverkeeper, for one, expresses fear that
- anchorage areas might become parking lots where crude oil is stored, perhaps while waiting for prices to rise;
- anchorage fields will be navigational obstructions that invite collisions;
- anchor chains will rip up river-bottom habitats—especially of endangered sturgeon;
- large anchored tankers and barges will disturb the peace with light and noise pollution;
- parked barges and tankers will be easy and spectacularly explosive terror targets.
In addition to potential problems with the anchorage fields, environmental groups cite the higher likelihood of spills and leaks from the increased crude oil traffic. Bakken crude is light—similar to diesel fuel—making it impossible to retrieve more than a fraction of a spill from a tidal estuary like the Hudson. A February 2015 tugboat collision on the Mississippi River caused a Bakken crude oil spill (by no means the first on the Mississippi). As reported by Riverkeeper, only 95 of the 34,000 gallons spilled could be recovered.
What are the objections from municipal officials?
Officials in riverfront towns and villages cite environmental and security concerns, but have been most vocal about quality-of-life and economic impacts.
A Bakken crude spill anywhere near Poughkeepsie could force the Hudson River drinking water supply to be shut off, affecting 75,000 residents. Neighboring municipalities that draw on the river can access other supplies, but there would be no backup source for Poughkeepsie.
In the quiet rural areas between Port Ewen and Rhinecliff, parked oil tankers and barges, lit up at night like mini Times Squares (as required by law), their generators roaring, led to enough complaints that the Coast Guard nixed parking there in November 2015. If proposed anchorages in that area are made official, the vessels will need to be brightly lit, by regulation.
The City of Yonkers, working hard to yank itself up out of economic malaise, has recently made significant investments in riverfront improvement. Worries about outdoor-cafe customers staring at giant oil tankers is not just a quibble over fine-dining aesthetics. Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano and local business leaders fear that a floodlit oil barge parking lot could quickly crush the germinating seed of urban revival.
If you don’t live near one of the proposed anchorages, why would you care about this?
What You Should Do
River pilots and crews are skilled mariners, with a high regard for safety, and crude oil tankers are all now double hulled. Accidents, nevertheless, do happen. The increased crude oil traffic, along with maneuvers in and out of multi-ship anchorages, will only up the odds. In 2012, the first oil tanker to leave Albany, the Stena Primorsk, got just 10 miles south with its 12 million gallons of Bakken crude before running aground. Her double hull saved the day in that case, but it was a close enough call to warrant plenty of alarm.
The safety record of tugboats that transport crude oil barges is not stellar. According to a 2015 investigative report by New York World and the Albany Times Union: “[T]he tugboats used to move the oil barges are often decades old, and all of them have been involved in at least one accident in the past several years, including incidents like engine breakdowns, steering failures, and electrical malfunctions, according to a federal vessel database.” Spills on the order of millions of gallons, with only a fraction of that retrievable from the water, would affect the estuary’s health and life for many years, and many miles in either direction.
Oil and water . . .
It’s taken over 40 years of hard work and vigilance by watchdog groups and concerned citizens to get the Hudson to be the cleanest it’s been in living memory. Now, oil profiteers want to use the river as a parking lot and a superhighway for dangerous cargo. That threat is bringing ever more voices to the save-the-Hudson choir.
In an editorial this week—”No Parking on the Hudson”—the New York Times chimed in:
The river is beautiful, but it is still sick, a victim of misbegotten power plants and factories, municipal waste, toxic dumping and government neglect. A nuclear plant’s cooling system kills fish by the millions. General Electric stained miles of the riverbed with PCB’s, and the damage will linger for decades to come. The river once had a commercial fishery, but pollution of all kinds took care of that. Now comes the North Dakota oil . . .
Communities on the river are raising a stink. They should, for the most basic reason: oil and water.
Federal decision-making docket folder on the anchorage grounds petition.
The New York Times article on river town resistance to the planned anchorage fields.
USCG’s Proposed Rule Document contains detailed information about each anchorage ground, and the procedures it will follow in making its determination.
Sustainable Saturday on Swimming in the Hudson
HudsonRiverAnchorages.org, a Rhinecliff resident’s clearinghouse of articles, reports, and information related to the new anchorage proposal.
CORRECTION 9/26/2016: Earliest date of implementation, if any anchorages are approved, would be early 2018. Previous version of this article misstated that date as Spring 2017.
[Featured image: John Lipscomb/Riverkeeper]
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