The Hudson River may still become a major corridor for the shipment of thick, tar sands oil from Canada despite moves last year by New York officials that many thought stopped those efforts.
At issue is a key air permit needed by an oil terminal in Albany to transfer heavy crude from railcars to barges that would travel down the Hudson and past some of New Jersey’s most densely populated communities on their way to refineries.
Although oil spills by tankers have decreased in recent decades, environmentalists and some local officials say heavy crude represents a significant threat to the Hudson because it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to fully clean up.
Many believed the proposal by Global Partners LP was defeated last year when the New York Department of Environmental Conservation reversed its original approval of the plan after the agency received considerable backlash. But the permit issue is now slowly wending its way through New York courts.
“A lot of people thought it was the end of the story, but it’s really just in a state of limbo,” said Kate Hudson, a lawyer with the advocacy group Hudson Riverkeeper. “It’s still a real threat.”
A spokesman for Global Partners of Waltham Mass. did not respond to a request for comment by The Record newspaper.
Under Gov. Andrew Cuomo, New York has quietly turned the Hudson into a major transportation route for oil by allowing Global and Buckeye Partners of Houston to more than double the amount of crude they’re permitted to handle in Albany to almost 3 billion gallons a year. Those ships, destined for East Coast refineries, are carrying Bakken crude — a light form of oil from North Dakota’s booming well fields that is mostly buoyant and vaporizes at the water’s surface.
Although Bakken crude is volatile and has been involved in several fiery derailments, tar sands oil presents a greater threat to a river because it clumps together and sinks.
Nowhere has this been demonstrated more than in the Kalamazoo River in Michigan, where in 2010 an Enbridge pipeline ruptured, spilling more than 843,000 gallons of tar sands crude into the waterway. Even with a six-year cleanup that has surpassed $1 billion, the EPA estimates that upward of 168,000 gallons of oil cannot be recovered and will remain in the river for the foreseeable future.
“It’s just about the worst possible thing you can transport on a river,” said Gil Hawkins, president of Hudson River Fishermen’s Association. “It doesn’t go away.”
That’s why river advocates became alarmed in 2013 when New York environmental officials approved a plan by Global that would allow it to heat viscous oil in cold weather so it can be transferred from rail to barge at its 63-acre terminal on the banks of the Hudson. Opponents say the only oil that would need to be heated in such a fashion comes from the Alberta tar sands in Canada, which had been the subject of a national debate on the need to build the 1,200-mile Keystone XL pipeline to the Gulf of Mexico. President Obama last year blocked the pipeline from being built, saying the environmental risk outweighed any economic gains.
Public opposition against the permit was significant. The Department of Environmental Conservation extended the public comment period by almost a year and received more than 19,000 letters and emails, almost all against the project. Last year, the DEC rescinded its initial approval to Global, saying heating the crude would pollute the air in the area, which includes a large residential development.
But the decision was never finalized and it allowed Global to challenge the agency in court. A judge had ordered the agency to make a final ruling this month, but the DEC is now appealing.
A DEC spokesman would only say that the agency is waiting on the courts to hear its appeal.
In New Jersey, Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Secaucus), called on Governor Christie to conduct a comprehensive review of the state’s readiness to handle spills and emergencies. The Jersey side of the Hudson has seen thousands of new residents in the past 25 years as the waterfront has been transformed from a fading industrial hub to a high-end bedroom community.
Bob Considine, a spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, said the agency is monitoring the developments but won’t be formally weighing in because “we have no jurisdiction.”
All oil tankers and barges that serve U.S. ports have been required since last year to have a double hull, one of the many reforms spurred by the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill.
A double hull was key in preventing a disaster on the Hudson in 2012 when the Stena Primorsk, the first tanker carrying light crude out of Albany, ran aground and ruptured its outer hull. None of the 12 million gallons of oil it carried spilled because the inner hull was not breached.
While the amount of oil spilled has decreased as double hulls have been phased in, they are not foolproof. A double hull tanker spilled almost 1.4 million gallons of oil off Singapore last year after colliding with another ship.
An accident like the Stena Primorsk is one reason Kate Hudson of the Hudson Riverkeeper hopes New York officials consider the impact to the river if the court orders them to revisit the issue. “You can’t just look at what could happen just to Albany,” she said. “It has to be much broader than that. It has to take into account what can happen to the Hudson.”