Starting in 2011, crude oil fracked from the Bakken Formation in North Dakota began to be transported by rail to the Port of Albany, and the first barge shipments down the river to refineries along the coast of New Jersey and Pennsylvania were made. According to Kate Hudson, director of cross-watershed initiatives at Riverkeeper, 25 percent of all crude from the Bakken is destined for Albany.
While low oil prices have slowed down the amount of crude moving down the river and on trains moving southward on the CSX rail line on the Hudson’s western shore. But with the federal government’s lifting of the 40-year ban on exporting oil and allowing the sale of U.S. crude on the international market, the petroleum industry has a new impetus to ship more crude oil down the river.
Some are seeing that impetus as the prime motivation behind the request to the U.S. Coast Guard, which has jurisdiction over the waterway, last January by the Maritime Association of the Port of NY/NJ for ten new designated barge anchorage zones. The anchorages would accommodate up to 43 vessels, which could be as long as 600 feet each, and cover a total of 2,000 acres of river. The letter to the Coast Guard from the industry noted that “trade will increase on the Hudson River significantly” due to the lifting of the ban. Being able to position the empty barges closer to Albany means the oil companies could load oil from trains to a barge as soon as the filled barge leaves, said Hudson, expediting the transport down the river to the refineries and overseas markets. Riverkeeper, which has come out strongly against the proposal, noted that on their way back down the river, the barges also possibly could be used to store crude oil until prices rebound, a practice that they say has occurred in other parts of the country.
In considering the request, the Coast Guard has been soliciting public comments, and in response to the huge outcry from communities up and down the river — more than 2,300 comments were received just in the last week, according to Chief Warrant Officer Allyson Conroy — it just extended the comment period from Sept. 7 to Dec. 6. The Coast Guard will then decide whether to proceed with the rulemaking for the proposal.
If it does, it will take more public comments on the finalized details (such as the allowable time for the barges to be anchored), according to Conroy. It also will hold public meetings, at which people can submit their comments, and conduct an environmental impact study, she said. The process will involve “working together with a number of agencies and partners,” she said.
Many municipalities along the river have been dedicating resources over the past few decades to transform their waterfronts into scenic and recreational oases, which have been economic drivers for tourism and attracting more residents and businesses. Opposition to the proposed anchorages has been widespread. Here in Kingston, Mayor Steve Noble sent a letter to the Coast Guard last month objecting to the proposed anchorages, and the Common Council’s General Government/Public Safety Committee plans to hold a special meeting at which it will propose and issue a resolution against the anchorages.
For months, barges had been anchoring in Port Ewen at an unauthorized anchorage. After residents on both sides of the river complained of noisy generators that ran 24/7 and bright lights along the decks, the Coast Guard prohibited the anchorages last November, before the maritime industry sent its request in January. Currently there are two federally authorized anchorages in the Hudson, one off Yonkers and the other off Hyde Park. Conroy said the Hyde Park anchorage is closed between Dec. 16 and the end of February, which “impedes the time where you need anchorages in the winter months.” Adding more anchorages would help a situation in which “after Dec. 16, there is no place to anchor on the 110-mile stretch from Yonkers to Kingston,” she said.
The proposed anchorages would extend from Yonkers (where the current anchorage would be extended) north to Kingston. The area off Kingston, a total of 279 acres, would allow up to three barges, and 47 acres would also be designated off Port Ewen for the boat anchorages and turnarounds. Anchorages are also proposed for Big Rock, Roseton, Milton, Marlboro, Newburgh, Tompkins Cove and Montrose Point.
In its letter to the Coast Guard, the maritime industry lists safety as one of the key considerations for the anchorages. But Riverkeeper said that procedures for emergency anchorages are already in place. Currently, if a vessel on the river encounters fog, fading daylight, strong currents or other condition constituting a safety emergency, the crew can call into the Coast Guard for permission to anchor outside the channel, said Conroy. It’s up to the Coast Guard official, called the captain of the port, to grant permission, for how long, and, if conditions don’t improve, whether the vessel has to head back the way it came, she said.
Accidents can happen
A spill of crude oil on the river “would be a devastation,” said Hudson, noting that only 15 to 20 percent of the oil would likely be recovered. “The Hudson is a moving tidal river and you can’t boom in a river.” Riverkeeper notes in its press releases about the issue that a spill of 34,000 gallons of crude on the Mississippi River in February 2014 resulted in the recovery of only 95 gallons. The volume of crude moving down the river could be substantial; according to Hudson, Global Oil Corp. has a permit from the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) allowing up to 1.8 billion gallons of crude oil to be transported on the river a year and Buckeye Partners 1.1 billion gallons a year.
A spill would also imperil the water supply of 100,000 people who get their drinking water from the Hudson. According to Hudson, the Poughkeepsie Water Board, which serves 75,000 people who get their water from an intake pipe in the river, has estimated there would be only 48 to 72 hours of water left in those intakes once they are shut out due to an oil spill. Unlike communities on the west side of the river, Poughkeepsie would not be able to tap into New York City’s Catskill aqueduct, leaving Poughkeepsie and other surrounding communities with no back-up source of water, according to Hudson.
Riverkeeper is also concerned about the impact of the proposed anchorages on the river’s population of endangered shortnose and Atlantic sturgeon. The Hyde Park anchorage is over an area that may have the highest concentration of Atlantic sturgeon on the entire Eastern seaboard at spawning time in the summer, according to the environmental organization. Each year, less than 1,000 adult Atlantic sturgeon are believed to travel up to the freshwater sections of the river to spawn before returning back to the ocean.
Riverkeeper noted that scientists using side-scan sonar to track the sturgeon at Hyde Park have documented scarring of the rocky bottom, which is essential to the successful hatching of sturgeon, by anchors and anchor chains. Damage has also been observed at the unauthorized Port Ewen anchorage — and the scouring has remained months after the damage was done.
The environmental organization noted that “the area off Kingston, and Sturgeon Point across the way in Rhinecliff … is an important area for shortnose sturgeon,” adding that “both species of sturgeon overwinter near the proposed anchorages at Tompkins Cove and Montrose … Before any new anchorages are approved, researchers must determine definitively whether the disturbance to sturgeon habitat is detrimental or not.”
Sean Dixon, staff attorney at Riverkeeper, noted that the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is responsible for monitoring endangered species, is in the process of determining the critical habitat for the fish, as it is required to by law. The comment period just ended for the NMFS proposal to establish the entire Hudson River, along with other Eastern seaboard waterways, as critical habitat for sturgeon. Dixon said it’s important that the Coast Guard, in reaching its decision on the anchorages, consult with NMFS. He noted that “a level of [environmental] review is required for species protected as endangered … these proposed anchorages affect the soft sediments which sturgeon need to forage … the crisscrossing and dragging for the anchor chains” disturb the rocky bottom essential for the hatching of sturgeon eggs and foraging of the newly hatched fish, he added.
Not just crude
In addition to upping the volume of crude oil, the oil industry also hopes to begin transporting Alberta tar sands oil down the river. Global has applied to the DEC for a permit to transport tar sands oil which arrived by train to Albany down the river. The oil, which solidifies, would have to be heated at the Port of Albany before it could be moved onto barges. According to Hudson, after Riverkeeper sued the state for “being on the verge of issuing the permit without an environmental review,” the DEC issued a notice of its intent to rescind its negative declaration under the State Environmental Quality Review Act — i.e., require an environmental review before the permit could be issued — but so far has not done so. (Meanwhile the state was sued by Global for its failure to issue the permit; the case remains tied up in court.)
Hudson said a spill of tar sands oil, which is goopy and heavy, would be similarly devastating to the river, with less than 10 percent of the material likely recovered.
She also noted that the proposed anchorages have no bearing on the shipments of refined oil, fuel oil and gasoline that’s been traveling up the river to Albany to meet regional energy needs for decades. The market for crude oil is entirely separate, she said. The U.S. is now the world’s leading producer of petroleum and natural gas hydrocarbons, but, in 2015, imported 9.4 million barrels of oil a day, since U.S. refineries are not equipped to refine the type of crude oil that comes from fracking. Sending it directly overseas would be more profitable, according to a study sponsored by the Aspen Institute.
Since August 2008, U.S. oil production has been up nearly 90 percent, and the nation has been exporting 500,000 barrels of crude to Canada, which was exempt from the ban, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal. According to statistics from the Army Corps of Engineers’ Waterborne Commerce Statistics Center as reported by the Journal News, in 2015 17.5 million tons of cargo was transported on the Hudson, of which 65.7 percent was petroleum products — some 11.5 million tons of crude oil, gasoline and fuel oil.
With the lifting of the oil export ban, the oil industry “has the permits and structure and can ramp up production anytime it makes sense,” said Hudson. “They are not limited by refinery capacity.”