Crude on the Hudson: NYS must act now to prevent a disaster

The future health of the Hudson River depends heavily on decisions that the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation must make soon. That may sound like the-sky-is-falling overstatement, but it’s not. New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo seems pretty worried, too.

On January 28, Cuomo recognized the seriousness of at least part of this issue with an executive order calling for a group of state agencies, including DEC, to study shipments of crude oil in the state and report back to him by April 30. He directed them to make recommendations on how New York can both coordinate better with federal agencies and improve its own ability “to prevent and respond to accidents involving the transportation of crude oil and other petroleum products by rail, ship, and barge.”

This executive order did not come out of the blue. The governor was reacting to a series of catastrophic oil accidents. Right at the top of the document, he cited two of them. One took place last July 26, when a train carrying crude oil derailed in Lac-Mégantic, Québec. The horrific result: fire and explosion causing 47 deaths, the destruction of the community, and mass evacuations. Then, on December 30, a derailment in Casselton, ND, spilled more than 400,000 gallons of crude oil, caused a fire, and forced more than 1,000 residents to evacuate.

Those accidents may seem remote, but rail-to-barge shipments of crude oil are arriving daily in the Port of Albany, destined for refineries in the Mid-Atlantic states. The trains are traveling both eastward, along the Mohawk River, and southward, from Canada, along Lake Champlain. At the Port of Albany, the rail cars transfer their volatile cargo to barges, which head down the Hudson.

Much of this oil originates in the Bakken formation in North Dakota. Two things are worth noting about Bakken oil: first, as the governor pointed out in his executive order, “Bakken crude oil has a lower flashpoint and is therefore more prone to ignite during a rail accident.” Second, as he also acknowledged, the production of Bakken oil is increasing. That crude, the governor said, “due to lack of pipeline capacity, must be transported by rail.”

That is where DEC’s role becomes crucial. In November 2012, the agency approved an application by Global Companies LLC to change its existing permit and double the storage and loading capacity for Bakken oil at the Port of Albany. And that’s not doubling a trivial amount.

“Within the past year, over one billion gallons of explosive Bakken crude oil has been shipped into the Port by rail; hundreds of crude oil rail cars are being stored just feet away from homes and playgrounds; and long lines of crude oil rail cars routinely stretch for miles along Route 787 through the heart of downtown Albany,” said a January 30 letter to DEC Commissioner Joseph Martens, which NRDC endorsed. “All of this has occurred without the thorough environmental review required by state law, and without any attempt to engage the residential communities that are bearing the brunt of this unprecedented industrial activity as required by the Department’s Environmental Justice Policy.”

That policy grew out of concerns in the late 1990s that DEC’s permitting process was not taking into account disproportionate environmental impacts on low-income and minority communities—and wasn’t doing enough to hear the voices of these communities. As an agency, the DEC now has a clear policy on environmental justice.

The year before granting Global permission to expand capacity, DEC had found that Global’s terminal could have adverse effects on an “environmental justice area” nearby. Once DEC made that determination, Global should have submitted to the agency a “public participation plan,” to give the community a voice in the permitting process. But Global didn’t. Without it, under the environmental justice policy, the application couldn’t be considered complete. But DEC gave its OK anyway.

Also, in its application for the expansion, Global argued nonsensically that the doubling of the crude oil capacity at the Port of Albany would not cause additional train traffic in the area. That qualifies as magical thinking, but DEC went along. Now the agency needs to reverse its earlier decision to grant Global this doubling of capacity—and this time DEC should get the process right.

Then there’s the pending application. Last year, Global sought permission to install seven gas-fired boilers at its terminal. One logical reason for that is to allow them to heat up highly viscous tar sands oil to facilitate handling and transfer from rail cars to barges. Global hasn’t said that tar sands oil is coming, but NRDC and other environmental groups strongly suspect that’s what this is about.

Why do we worry about tar sands oil? For a general sense of its problems, read NRDC’s fact sheet on the high environmental costs of this dirtiest form of petroleum. Beyond that, there’s a troublesome piece of tar sands history: a 2010 spill of tar sands oil from a pipeline into the Kalamazoo River, near Battle Creek, MI. The Canadian company, Enbridge Energy Partners, LP, said it would take a month to clean up. But well into 2013, that process was still going on. Tar sands oil isn’t nearly as easy to clean up in water bodies as other types of oil. It doesn’t float on the surface, capable of being contained by floating booms. It sinks, and that makes it nearly impossible to clean up.

Now, try to imagine a tar sands-laden barge running aground or sinking in the Hudson. We’ve all been reading a lot lately about how much cleaner and healthier the Hudson has become. The death of singer/activist Pete Seeger reminded us how much he and the sloop Clearwater contributed to the efforts of many groups to clean the river. To despoil it again now would be tragic. Yet, unaccountably, DEC has already submitted a Notice of Complete Application for this latest Global request, which could very well aid in bringing tar oil traffic to the river.

So we commend Governor Cuomo for his executive order. But he must also see to it that the DEC becomes more aggressive in protecting the river and its communities. Though the regulatory landscape is complex, involving multiple actors at the local, state, and federal levels, that is no excuse for not mounting a strenuous effort to protect this great historic river—and the communities on its shores. The executive order alone won’t do that. Only some serious rethinking at DEC, to overcome a case of regulatory timidity, can accomplish that.

That explains NRDC’s trip to Albany today, participating in a public meeting with officials of both DEC and Global. We intend to use the opportunity to push for a moratorium on shipping crude oil through New York State until we fully evaluate the risks it presents and essential safety improvements are in place. We also intend to ask some tough questions, including what plans exist in the event of catastrophic spill. We – and those we entrust to keep us safe – have some serious work ahead of us if we are to prevent bad decisions that could lead to a disastrous act of rivercide.