Gas Barge Grounding in New York Shows Risk of Turning Hudson River into ‘Pipeline on Water’

On April 4 a barge carrying 60,000 barrels of gasoline ran aground in the Hudson River and was stranded for hours while New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation tried to determine if the barge was leaking. Luckily the Hudson is a tidal river and when the tide rose, the ship was able to be freed. No gasoline had spilled this time. 

However, the nature of the accident highlights the risks of moving petroleum products in barges and tankers on the Hudson River — something that may become a lot more common in the near future. Basil Seggos, head of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, explained to the Albany Times Union what caused the accident but couldn’t explain why it happened. 

“He's way off the channel,” Seggos said. “It looks like it's on a really bad trajectory at this point. If it hadn't hit the channel marker it would have run into the shoreline, possibly.”

Captain John Lipscomb of Hudson Riverkeeper noted how even with modern safety technologies, the reality is that accidents happen. And what really concerns Lipscomb is the possibility of one of these accidents resulting in a crude oil spill in the Hudson. A major gasoline spill would cause some environmental damage and pose fire risks. But it would not have the potentially catastrophic impact of a major spill of Bakken crude or Canadian tar sands. 

Lipscomb also mentioned an event that happened in 2012 when the oil-by-rail industry was ramping up in Albany. On the first such trip down the Hudson, an oil tanker filled with Bakken oil from the Albany rail terminal ran aground when the tanker had steering issues and was unable to stay in the channel. While the accident tore some large holes in the tanker’s outer shell, luckily the tanker was double-hulled, and no oil spilled. 

Hudson River or “Pipeline on the Water”?

One of the reasons — beyond the obvious — that these recent accidents have raised serious concerns among Riverkeeper and many others in the Hudson Valley is the current application by the Maritime Association of the Port of New York/New Jersey Tug and Barge Committee for 16 new barge anchorages along the Hudson River. These anchorages would allow for 42 long-term mooring berths. 

In the letter to the Coast Guard requesting the anchorages, the Maritime Association was quite upfront about the reasons for asking for the anchorages: 

“Trade will increase on the Hudson River significantly over the next few years with the lifting of the ban on American Crude exports for foreign trade and federally designated anchorages are key to supporting trade.”

The idea of making the Hudson River a “pipeline on water” for oil that will be exported does not sit well with many in the Hudson Valley. Over 10,000 comments were submitted during the public comment period for this proposal for additional barge anchorages, and significant opposition has been well-documented on the site Hudson River Anchorages. 

This issue has raised so many concerns about the potential environmental and economic impacts that it has created an unusual phenomenon — bipartisan opposition. 

Just weeks before the latest barge ran aground, a bill opposing the anchorage plan was introduced by a Republican state senator and a Democratic assemblymember, as reported by the Hudson Valley News Network.  

Our communities have worked far too hard for far too long on revitalizing our waterfront to risk compromising the Hudson River,” said Republican Senator Sue Serino. “As someone who hails from a town that actually gets their drinking water directly from the Hudson, I cannot overstate the importance of this bill.

Momentum Builds in New York Against Fossil Fuel Infrastructure 

While this latest incident on the Hudson River and the potential for increased oil barge traffic are of great concern to many New Yorkers, a number of recent developments have slowed the rapid build-out of fossil fuel infrastructure there and contributed to protecting the state’s water. 

New York’s ban on fracking in 2015 was the culmination of years of well-organized large scale activism. More recently, the state has denied two proposed natural gas pipelines over concerns about their impact to the environment and water systems. Meanwhile, another pipeline project was abandoned by its backers. The latest project to be denied was the Northern Access pipeline, on the grounds that the project “fail[ed] to avoid adverse impacts to wetlands, streams, and fish and other wildlife habitat.”

And while environmental regulations are under attack at the national level, led in part by climate denier Scott Pruitt at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, New York is a somewhat different story. The state budget includes the Clean Water Infrastructure Act of 2017.

Paul Gallay, president of Riverkeeper, summed up this new legislation by saying, “New York’s leaders did more to protect the Empire State’s rivers and drinking water than at any other time since the modern environmental movement began more than a half a century ago.”

However, as the oil barge proposal shows, the oil and gas industry continues efforts to build up infrastructure in New York. The Pilgrim pipeline, which would transport oil delivered by train from Albany to Linden, New Jersey, is still under consideration. In addition, trains full of crude oil still travel along many of New York’s waterways, including a large section of the Hudson River. 

With each new accident, opposition to the projects continues to grow. As Riverkeeper Captain Lipscomb said, “We don’t want that increased transport of Bakken oil on the Hudson, precisely because accidents happen.”

In the trailer for the new movie The Hudson: A River at Risk, Audrey Friedrichsen of Scenic Hudson explains the real issue for New Yorkers:

The truth of the matter is we bear all of the risks and none of the benefits.” 

The Hudson: A River at Risk - Web Series Trailer HD (2017) from Oceans 8 Films on Vimeo.

Main image: A barge and tanks on the Hudson River. Credit: Justin Mikulka