Thursday, July 10, 2014

Crude Oil on the Hudson

Kate Hudson of Riverkeeper called it "the single greatest threat the Hudson has faced in decades." She was speaking, of course, about the transport of crude oil on the Hudson in tankers and barges and along the Hudson in DOT-111 rail cars.

Last night, at Hudson Basilica, at a community meeting organized by the Hudson Sloop Club and called "The Future of Oil on the Hudson," Hudson and Althea Mullarkey of Scenic Hudson talked about the risks posed by the "virtual pipeline" that transports crude oil from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota through the Hudson Valley to refineries in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Gossips readers are already familiar with much of the basic information about the virtual pipeline. It was presented back in March in the Riverkeeper webinar, "Preventing a Crude Oil Spill on the Hudson." That webinar can still be viewed online. Last night some new information and statistics were presented that merit repeating here.

Every month, 189 million gallons of crude oil move through the Hudson Valley--by water and by rail. A barge loaded with 4 million gallons of crude oil leaves the Port of Albany every day, and once a week the tanker Afrodite, carrying 8 million gallons of crude oil, heads down the river. Meanwhile every day, two trains made up of from 80 to 120 tanker cars each roll down the west side of the river. All of this oil is Bakken crude oil--highly volatile and extremely difficult to clean up. It is estimated that a successful clean up of a Bakken spill would only capture only 20 to 25 percent of the oil spilled.

In December 2012, the oil tanker Stena Primorsk, carrying 6 million gallons of Bakken crude, ran aground on its maiden voyage two miles north of Stuyvesant. Fortunately, the Stena Primorsk is a double hull ship. The accident pierced the outer hull, but no oil spilled into the river.

Michael P. Farrell/Times Union

The DOT-111 tanker cars carrying Bakken crude by rail are another story. They were not designed to carry volatile liquids. They were designed, Mullarkey revealed last night, to carry corn oil. When they derail, they split open, with disastrous consequences.

Luann Hunt/City of Lynchburg
Three months ago, in April 2014, fifteen cars carrying Bakken crude derailed in Lynchburg, Virginia, causing a disastrous fire and spilling crude oil into the James River. Since December 2013, there have been five derailments of trains carrying crude oil in the United States, but the most disastrous derailment occurred a year ago in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. In the early morning hours of July 6, 2013, an unattended train of tanker cars rolled into the town of Lac-Megantic, derailed, and exploded, killing 47 people and destroying half the downtown.

Last night, Hudson and Mullarkey presented a diagram based on the data from the Lac-Megantic disaster and from another derailment that occurred in Casselton, North Dakota, that showed what could happen if one of the two trains passing through the Village of Catskill every day were to derail. According to this model, the wind carrying toxic fumes would necessitate the evacuation of most of Hudson.

As a consequence of the Lac-Megantic disaster, Mullarkey and Hudson reported, the Canadian government has banned DOT-111 cars, but the U.S. Department of Transportation has been unwilling to take that action. Mullarkey predicted that the cars that can no longer be used in Canada will not be retired but will end up being used in the U.S. 

As if all this weren't frightening enough, Mullarkey and Hudson explained that the emergency response capacity to deal with a crude oil disaster does not exist. Apparently, there is a response plan for the Hudson River, but it hasn't been updated in ten years--certainly not since hundreds of millions of gallons of Bakken crude started being transported on the river. As Mullarkey noted, when the Stena Primorsk ran aground, the emergency responders trained to deal with the situation had to come from Massachusetts. She also pointed out that every company involved in the Lac-Megantic disaster declared bankruptcy, leaving the community and the Canadian government to pay for the cleanup. 

When the train carrying Bakken crude derailed in Lynchburg, it was revealed that city officials and emergency responders had no idea that crude oil was passing through their city on that day. Because of this situation, a federal directive was issued in May, a few weeks after the incident, requiring CSX and other U.S. railroads to disclose to local emergency responders the routes the trains would take and the amount of oil they would be carrying. CSX then turned around and asked the states--New York among them--to keep this information secret from the public, in the interest of home security. Two months later, Hudson reported, the NYS Office of Emergency Management is still thinking about whether or not they want to keep the information secret. An editorial in the Poughkeepsie Journal on July 7, which called on the Office of Emergency Management to make the information public, concluded: "The public does have a right to know about the extent of these shipments, key information to make better assessments about the dangers and what the state and industry are doing, and need to do, to mitigate them."

Right now, the only crude oil passing through the Hudson Valley is Bakken crude, but it is possible that tar sands crude oil from Canada could also be transported on the river. Tar sands crude oil is thick and heavy, described by Mullarkey as the consistency of peanut butter. In order to be transferred from one vessel to another, it has to be heated to lower its viscosity. Global Partners, one of the companies moving crude oil through the Hudson Valley, has an application before the Department of Environmental Conservation for a permit to heat tar sands oil at their facility at the Port of Albany so it can be transferred from rail cars to barges and tankers for the trip down the Hudson. The public comment period for this application ends on August 1, and Riverkeeper and Scenic Hudson are urging residents of the Hudson Valley to call on DEC to do a full environmental review of the impacts this action will have on the Hudson River. Information about submitting comments is provided on the DEC website.

Letters urging DEC to study fully the risks of the virtual pipeline "by performing a complete environment impact review of all relevant pending and previously granted permits" can be sent electronically at the Riverkeeper website.


  1. This is very alarming. A big thank you to Basilica Hudson for providing the space

  2. I attended this event with a cultivated skepticism - but not because I accept the idea of river transport for crude oil for a minute.

    Rather, with the Environmental Defense Fund's nuanced approach to fracking in mind, my ear was attuned to potential weaknesses in the presentation which might compromise any eventual negotiating positions.

    My skepticism was totally inapplicable to the situation; there's no bargaining position in it at all. We have about as much chance to slow this thing as the Oglala Sioux had to slow prospecting once gold was discovered in the Black Hills. This gold rush is using our river every day and will only increase in volume.

    Thanks to my skepticism, I became utterly convinced that the river is in the greatest danger I've ever known, with nothing standing between the inevitable oil spill and the river's continued slow improvement - nothing except for the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation! (If THAT doesn't give you shivers I don't know what can.)

    As awful as it feels, we need to grovel to the DEC and ask it to honor the spirit and the letter of the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA). We need to beg these bureaucrats to conduct a proper environmental review which, for some reason, they desperately want to avoid. Fancy that ...

    The value of a written comment to the DEC is immeasurable (deadline August 1st). Bad grammar and misspellings count for so much more than a name on a petition.

    Do you wonder where the governor is on the issue? First become a statistic and the politicians won't be far behind. At the moment, this business isn't even on the map.

    Many thanks to the Sloop Club for organizing the event, and to Hudson Basilica for hosting it.

    And thank you Gossips for a really great summation. I know that took a great effort! Unfortunately we'll be referring back to the information contained in this post for some time to come.