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New state law fuels dispute over proposed Hudson River anchorages

Jan 31, 2018 03:50 PM
Coast Guard Rear Adm. Steven Poulin addresses Hudson River stakeholders and waterway users at a safety assessment workshop on Nov. 15 in Albany, N.Y. “You are the experts in your fields and you will identify risks on the Hudson River and help inform us on the right way forward to mitigate them,” he said.

Courtesy U.S. Coast Guard

Coast Guard Rear Adm. Steven Poulin addresses Hudson River stakeholders and waterway users at a safety assessment workshop on Nov. 15 in Albany, N.Y. “You are the experts in your fields and you will identify risks on the Hudson River and help inform us on the right way forward to mitigate them,” he said.

The fight over establishing new barge anchorages on the Hudson River intensified in October, with New York enacting a law requiring state review and approval of any new mooring areas and shipping industry proponents questioning the need for the additional oversight.

The law was enacted a month before the U.S. Coast Guard held a pair of two-day workshops to assess the risks posed by 10 new anchorage sites between Kingston and Yonkers. The sites were proposed by the Maritime Association of the Port of New York/New Jersey Tug and Barge Committee, the Hudson River Pilots Association, and the American Waterways Operators.

Industry officials argue the anchorages are needed to create safe areas for ships to stop to rest their crews, or in times of poor weather. Environmentalists and local officials opposed to the plan are concerned that the river will be clogged with vessels waiting for space to dock at the Port of Albany, and that the number of tankers and barges transporting Bakken crude oil could rise dramatically, increasing the likelihood of spills.

The new state law gives the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) — in consultation with the Coast Guard, the state Board of Commissioners of Pilots, the New York Department of State, the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, and local elected officials — the authority to determine how vessels carrying petroleum can operate on the Hudson. It also allows the state to establish “tanker avoidance zones” near waterfront communities, critical aquatic habitat and other sensitive areas.

Shipping industry representatives call it an unnecessary duplication of federal regulation, and some question whether it is legal for the state to regulate commerce already controlled by the federal government.

“It’s sad to see it was signed into law with no participation from the industry,” said Steve Kress, vice president of marine operations for McAllister Towing and Transportation. “It’s counterproductive. It’s a federally designated marine highway” regulated by federal agencies, so the state’s participation is redundant, he said.

Capt. Ian Corcoran, president of the Hudson River Pilots Association, said his organization opposed the legislation because “there was already a state bill on the books that established a petroleum-bearing vessel advisory council after the Exxon Valdez spill. It created a commission largely of experts in commercial navigation, but they never used it.”

Corcoran added that the bill relies on “vague criteria” for decision-making that are not relevant to the safe movement of vessels on the river, such as proximity to waterfront communities.

John Lipscomb, vice president for advocacy for the environmental group Riverkeeper, said the law is necessary “because a lot of the industrial players have a great deal of autonomy. So home rule is important. We’re not going to count on the federal government. We’re going to address our concerns with our own state government.”

Sean Mahar, a spokesman for the DEC, said New York “has the authority to advance protection measures of natural resources in the state, and in this case the state will work closely with the federal government and other stakeholders as these guidelines are developed to ensure the protection of the environment, and continued commerce along this economically important corridor.”

In late June, the Coast Guard announced that after receiving more than 10,000 comments, it had suspended the rulemaking process for establishing the new anchorages. It also announced that it would conduct a formal risk identification and evaluation of the river. Two workshops for the review, called the Ports and Waterways Safety Assessment (PAWSA), were held in November in Poughkeepsie and Albany.

At the Poughkeepsie session, more than 40 river stakeholders discussed two dozen possible navigation and pollution dangers from the additional anchorages and methods for mitigating the risks. The participants represented six shipping industry associations and companies, four environmental groups, five municipalities, three federal agencies, three state agencies and two universities.

Rear Adm. Steven Poulin, commander of the 1st Coast Guard District, said in opening remarks that 94 percent of the comments that the service received were in opposition to the anchorage plan, 3 percent were in favor and 3 percent were neutral. But he added that the process “is not simply about anchorages. … This PAWSA is an opportunity for us to talk more comprehensively about all of the associated risks” of all recreational and commercial uses of the Hudson.

The results from both workshops will be combined into one report, which Poulin anticipated issuing by the end of January. “Then we’ll have to decide what the most appropriate way forward is,” he said.

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