Dispute Over Oil Barge Anchorage on Hudson Heads Toward Resolution

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by Robert Kimmel –

Scenic Hudson RiverWalk Park overlooks waterway
where anchorages would be stationed.

Riverkeeper, Scenic Hudson, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, along with other organizations, municipalities and thousands of residents along its shores, are of single mind when it comes to the Hudson River. They do not want to see a significant increase in barges or other oil-carrying vessels that could pose “potential dangers” on the river, as they have been characterized.

What will transpire on the Hudson could be disclosed early this year when the U.S. Coast Guard releases a report on two workshops held this past November that brought together, “users, stakeholders, and agencies, to determine the safety of the waterway.”

The public concern was sparked originally from a 2016 Coast Guard proposal to set up or enlarge as many as 10 commercial shipping ports, starting in Yonkers and in other locations as far north as Kingston off the Rhinebeck shoreline, some 70 miles upstream. Forty three anchorages were proposed, providing ports for barges as large as 600 feet in length.

Local communities, Irvington, Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow, were not among those locations. The next closest berths to the north would be in Montrose. The Yonkers Extension Anchorage Ground would have provided for as many as 16 vessels and taken up an area of about 715 acres, which would allow 1,200 feet for each vessel to “swing” in the river. The Montrose berths would have accounted for three vessels and cover about 127 acres.

Requests for such anchorages came from maritime shipping interests who encountered the need for more oil transports on both land and water, resulting from a major increase in domestic oil production, mostly from hydro-fracking, and also because of Congressional action eliminating a ban on crude oil exports. Vessels had been anchoring at undesignated northerly locations on the Hudson and were warned by the Coast Guard they could face fines. In response, early in 2016, the Maritime Association of the Port of New York and New Jersey requested the additional berths, asserting that existing ones were inadequate for the increasing traffic and adding that it also had safety as a concern.

When the Coast Guard issued what it labels as an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in 2016, it also sought “comprehensive public input” to determine the “need for a proposed rule on new anchorage grounds on the Hudson River to promote safe navigation.” By early December 2016, it received more than 10,200 comments from “waterway stakeholders,” mostly rejecting the anchorage proposal. A Coast Guard spokesperson called it the greatest public response it had ever received for such requests.

Municipalities along the Hudson and political figures expressed opposition to the additional anchorages. Tarrytown’s Board of Trustees passed a resolution calling for the Coast Guard proposal to be “…considered null and void,” contending it did not meet government regulations, and also cited safety, and pollution concerns, and that it would “impact the views throughout the riverfront.” The trustees noted all of the investments made by the county, environmental groups and municipalities in making the waterfront more accessible and attractive.

“The increase in barge traffic along the Hudson River will adversely impact the economy and safety of the Lower Hudson Valley region,” wrote Congresswoman Nita Lowey. State Senators Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Terrence Murphy voiced and wrote of their disapproval, as did Assemblyman Tom Abinanti. New York’s Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand called for public hearings on the proposal.

The Coast Guard backed off in June of last year, suspending the anchorage proposal after reviewing all the public comments it had sought. Rear Admiral Steven Poulin, who commands the First Coast Guard District, then directed a formal risk identification and evaluation of the Hudson River, known as a Ports and Waterways Safety Assessment, (PAWSA). The process is described as “… a disciplined approach to identify major waterway safety hazards, estimate risk levels, evaluate potential mitigation measures, and set the stage for implementation of selected measures to reduce risk.” It set up the two workshops in November, one in Albany and one in Poughkeepsie.

Tarrytown Administrator Richard Slingerland, representing the Hudson River Waterfront Alliance, as well as the village’s interests, was among the participants at the Coast Guard’s two-day Albany session. “We did a full evaluation of what the risks are on the river, and how things ended up at the end of day two of the workshop were very different than what I expected from this type of evaluation,” he said. “We went with the idea that we were going to evaluate questions about establishing the anchorages up and down the river for ships and barges. Environmental pollution was a major concern, but there was also a lot of concern about poor training, and even about boating while intoxicated relating to civilian, recreational boaters.”

Topics ranged from the concept of rotating anchorages for a set period of time, to allowing different rulemaking for establishing safe ports or anchorages during a storm, and formalizing port requirements to improving efficiency for loading and unloading ships, Slingerland noted.

While the importance for balancing the interests and needs for all those involved was understood, Slingerland pointed out the “need to have consideration of the waterfront renaissance taking place up and down the Hudson River. It is decades beyond being just an industrial river.”

Governor Andrew Cuomo reinforced opposition to the increased anchorage in October when he signed legislation giving New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation, (DEC), the power to consult with the Coast Guard and other groups and determine how vessels carrying petroleum navigate on the river, and to set up guidelines for “tanker avoidance zones.”

Last month, representatives of 35 local organizations signed a letter to DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos, thanking him for his “agency’s leadership in protecting the Hudson River,” and applauding the Governor’s action, but also requesting that the DEC “immediately advance a rulemaking process to establish Tanker Avoidance Zones…consistent with considerations in the new law.” The letter was written by Scenic Hudson, Food and Water Watch, Riverkeeper and the Natural Resources Defense Council, and it also called for other pursuits to safeguard the river’s environment.

How all of this plays out on the river may be determined either this month or next, soon after the Coast Guard releases its report on the two recent workshops which is said will be “stating the risks on the Hudson River that were identified, as well as potential risk mitigation measures,” and comes up with “specific recommendations as to what mitigation strategies should be implemented.”

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