Crude Oil Transport


Bakken Crude oil train derailment in Lac Magantic Quebec, 2013. Photo by Sûreté du Québec via Wikimedia Commons

47 people died and several square blocks were leveled in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, in July 2013 after the derailment of a train laden with Bakken crude oil. That train was destined for a New Brunswick refinery that is also the destination for some of the oil traveling through the Hudson Valley. (Photo by Sûreté du Québec via Wikimedia Commons.)

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Crude Oil by Rail: A Dangerous Record of Failure
Bomb Trains: Well Documented Risks
‘Virtual Pipeline’ Runs through New York State
Crude Oil Risks to the Hudson River
Heavy Crude Risk: Keystone on Hudson?
What Riverkeeper is Doing
What You Can Do

The Issue at a Glance

With very little public awareness and no study of environmental impacts, the oil industry has made the Hudson Valley into one arm of a dangerous “virtual pipeline” for crude oil that snakes thousands of miles by rail, barge and ship from oil fields in North Dakota and elsewhere, to refineries on both coasts.

Today, the New York State segment of this “virtual pipeline” primarily moves a particularly volatile crude oil by rail from the Bakken shale formation of North Dakota and nearby states and provinces, where oil production has doubled in three years, to the Port of Albany. There, billions of gallons of crude oil can be offloaded onto barges and ships destined for East Coast refineries. Additional trains loaded with crude oil destined for refineries to the south continue along the west side of the Hudson River, through communities in Greene, Ulster, Orange and Rockland counties.

A company wants to expand this “virtual pipeline” by adding a thick, heavy crude oil—possibly Alberta, Canada tar sands oil, to the dangerous cargo already being carried by increasing numbers of train cars and barges moving through the Hudson River valley.

The potential human and environmental impacts of this “virtual pipeline” are anything but virtual. The Hudson River, its tributaries and every community along a freight rail line are at risk from spills and fires.

Crude Oil by Rail: A Dangerous Record of Failure

Oil-soaked wetlands in Aliceville, Ala., following a November 2013 spill of Bakken crude oil following a train derailment. Photo by John Wathen, Hurricane Creekkeeper.

Oil-soaked wetlands in Aliceville, Ala., following a November 2013 spill of Bakken crude oil following a train derailment. Photo by John Wathen, Hurricane Creekkeeper.

Nationwide, shipping crude oil by rail has jumped sixfold since 2011, according to American Association of Railroads data, and rail shipments from the Bakken region have jumped exponentially since 2009.

This ad-hoc transportation system has repeatedly failed—and spectacularly.

The fires resulting from derailments of Bakken crude oil trains have caused fireballs and have burned so hot that emergency responders often can do nothing but wait—for days—to let the fires burn themselves out.

In just over six months, four major Bakken crude oil train derailments resulted in:

The same type of crude oil, carried by the same type of train cars involved in these derailments, are traveling through New York State today.

New York has had three near misses:

In 2013, far more oil was spilled from rail accidents in the U.S.—more than 1.15 million gallons—than in the previous four decades, combined.

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A crude oil train rolls along the Hudson River at West Point, N.Y., in 2013. Photo by Capt. John Lipscomb.

The common factor in each derailment—and these are only some of the most recent and damaging—is a vast increase in traffic of fully loaded “unit trains” made up of about 100 tanker cars linked end to end, each car holding approximately 30,000 gallons of crude oil. Both the particular type of crude oil and the particular train cars used pose risks:

The same train cars, carrying the same crude oil, are traveling through New York State today.

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‘Virtual Pipeline’ Runs through New York State

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In New York State, on their way to Albany, crude oil trains—called “bomb trains” by some railroad workers—on the Canadian Pacific and CSX lines pass through Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Dunkirk, Plattsburgh, Whitehall, Saratoga, Mechanicville, and Watervilet.

The crude oil trains travel along and across tributaries of both the upper Hudson River and the Mohawk River, the Hudson’s largest tributary.

Shipments of crude oil by train to the Port of Albany began in late 2011. The permitted capacity at the Port of Albany for the transfer of crude oil from railroad tanker cars to Hudson River vessels has since more than doubled, to 2.8 billion gallons per year—an average of 7.7 million gallons of crude oil per day. This oil is destined for refineries in New Jersey and New Brunswick, Canada.

Global Partners, one of the Port of Albany’s two oil terminal operators, alone is under contract to transport 91 million barrels of Bakken crude oil over five years by barge to a Phillips 66 refinery in New Jersey. It has told its investors that it has the capacity to offload two 120-car unit trains daily at the Port of Albany.

Much oil also continues south of Albany by rail along the Western side of the Hudson River. The public is in the dark about when rail shipments of crude oil began in New York State, and how much crude oil is traveling down the Hudson Valley today. Projects to expand Philadelphia-area refineries and the CSX railroad line between Albany and northern New Jersey support anecdotal evidence that, like the Port of Albany portion of the “virtual pipeline,” this transport route too has started within the last several years, and has increased in capacity.

Crude oil trains traveling south of Albany pass through the Hudson Valley communities of Ravena, Catskill, Lake Katrine, Kingston, Newburgh, Cornwall-on-Hudson, West Point, Stony Point, Haverstraw, Congers, Valley Cottage, West Nyack, Orangeburg and Tappan.

The crude oil trains also cross many Hudson River tributaries, including the Catskill, Coxsackie, Esopus and Rondout creeks—each of which is a state-designated “critical habitat” deemed “irreplaceable.” The trains hug the Hudson River shoreline from West Park to Haverstraw, along other state-designated “irreplaceable” critical habitats like Iona Marsh and Haverstraw Bay, to name just two. The trains also pass by drinking water intakes on the Hudson River at Poughkeepsie, Highland and Hyde Park, and by Lake Deforest, a critical source of drinking water for Rockland County and some Northern New Jersey communities.

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Crude Oil Risks to the Hudson River

Produced by Justin Mikulka

The expansions at oil terminals in the Port of Albany operated by Global Partners and Buckeye Partners were approved starting in 2011, before many concerns about crude oil shipments came to light, with minimal public awareness, and with no study of environmental impacts. Until late 2011, there was no crude oil being transported on the Hudson River, and the amount of crude oil being transported on the river has quickly grown to a permitted volume of 2.8 billion gallons per year.

Additional and significant quantities of crude oil are also being transported by rail along a route that hugs the Hudson River for many miles and crosses several major tributaries.

A pending Global Partners application could allow it to expand its oil terminal in New Windsor, Orange County, so it can transfer crude oil from train to barge there.

A typical barge can carry an amount of crude oil equivalent to the capacity of approximately 45 rail tank cars. The Afrodite, the ship making regular trips on the Hudson, can carry 8.4 million gallons.

While the Hudson River has long been part of shipping routes for other petroleum products, like heating fuel and gasoline, crude oil poses a new risk. Spill response plans developed to deal with a “worst case” spill—like a spill of heavy crude oil that sinks, rather than floats—may not be adequate for responding to a crude oil spill in all stretches of the river, including many of its state-designated “critical habitats.”

In December 2012, the first ship to leave the Port of Albany, the Stena Primorsk, ran aground about 6 miles from the Port of Albany. Fortunately, a double hull kept its 12 million gallons of crude oil—about the same amount spilled by the Exxon Valdez—from spilling into the shallow waters near Schodack Island that are prime shad and herring spawning habitat, and noted for the abundance of shorebirds, wading birds and waterfowl—an “irreplaceable” habitat and one of 40 state-designated “significant fish and wildlife habitats” in the Hudson River estuary.

A history of accidents on the Hudson River and elsewhere point to a risk even from transporting oil in double-hulled vessels, which are more protective in groundings than collisions. These are just a few relevant spills:

  • In February 2014, a crude oil barge collision on the Mississippi River spilled more than 30,000 gallons, closing up to 65 miles of the river for days after.
  • In January 2013, a double-hulled barge carrying 668,000 gallons of crude oil on the Mississippi River ruptured and spilled after colliding with a railroad bridge, resulting in the closure of the river for eight miles in either direction in the vicinity of Vicksburg, Miss.
  • In December 2012, a barge carrying 112,000 gallons of oil spilled near Staten Island, spreading an oily sheen six miles and affecting a bird sanctuary.
  • In 2005, a Hudson River barge carrying 3.1 million gallons of gasoline ruptured on Diamond Reef, near New Hamburg.
  • In 2003, a barge offloading gasoline on Staten Island exploded “with earthquake force… shaking businesses, homes and nerves for miles around as towering black smoke spread a pall over much of New York City.”
  • In 1977, a 420,000-gallon oil spill from a Hudson River barge near West Point was deemed “the worst spill of the year.”

A spill of crude oil in the Hudson River could devastate the ecosystem, put people’s health at risk and harm the regional economy, setting back decades of effort to restore the river’s ecosystem:

  • The Hudson River is the source of drinking water to thousands of Hudson Valley residents, including people living in Poughkeepsie, Highland, Port Ewen and Rhinebeck.
  • The Hudson is a designated National Heritage Area, and the backbone of the region’s $4.3 billion tourism economy.
  • The Hudson River estuary supports more than 200 species of fish, and each stretch of the river provides unique habitats—including 40 state-designated significant wildlife habitats—essential for fish and other wildlife.

Billions of dollars of investment in ecosystem restoration, historic preservation and tourism are at risk from an oil spill.

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Heavy Crude Risk: Keystone on Hudson?

oiled geese on Kalamazoo River

These geese were among hundreds of birds affected by the 2010 spill of heavy crude oil on the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

With the flow of Bakken crude oil already in the billions of gallons, there is a new risk that another crude oil with a different risk profile could be added.

Global Partners has a pending application to build up to seven boilers to heat tank cars at its Port of Albany oil terminal. This could allow it to add thick, heavy crude oil to the “virtual pipeline.” There is no need to heat Bakken crude oil, but heavy crude oils with a tar-like consistency would need heating in order to be transferred from rail to barge, especially in cold weather. What is this tar-like oil?

The company has so far ignored repeated public calls from Albany lawmakers and planners, and citizens of the Hudson Valley, to disclose the origin and composition of the oil it intends to heat in the Port of Albany.

Some press reports suggest the origin of this heavy crude is the Alberta tar sands in Canada, which has been the subject of a national campaign to combat global warming by denying permits needed to build the Keystone XL pipeline to transfer that crude oil to the Gulf of Mexico.

Spills of heavy crude oil can been particularly devastating, since the tar-like oil will likely sink, rather than float, making cleanup difficult or impossible.

A heavy crude bitumen pipeline rupture in 2010 oiled 40 miles of the Kalamazoo River in Michigan, and nearly four years later, the cleanup is still incomplete. The solution to one spill of 400,000 gallons of tar sands bitumen in Alberta, Canada, was to drain the lake.

We’ve all seen images of shorelines and wildlife coated with black oil. We can’t risk that here in New York.

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What Riverkeeper Is Doing

  • Calling on Gov. Cuomo to enact a moratorium on crude oil transport and take additional actions to protect New York’s environment and communities.
  • Calling on the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to conduct a full environmental review of Global Companies LLC’s pending application to expand its oil terminal operations in Albany and its application to expand its operations at its facility in New Windsor, New York.
  • Calling on the DEC to immediately reassess all previous permit modifications granted to Global Companies LLC and Buckeye Partners, L.P. that have allowed these companies to transport millions of gallons of crude oil per day into the Port of Albany without any comprehensive environmental review or public participation.
  • Urging state and federal agencies to test and update spill response plans.
  • Researching all aspects of this “virtual pipeline,” including its risks to the Hudson River and our communities, and strategies for reducing or eliminating those risks.
  • Building a coalition of environmental organizations to work on the issue.
  • Educating the public about known risks, and launching the social media campaign #NotOnMyWatch.

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What You Can Do

  • Stop the Bomb Trains: Support Riverkeeper’s call for a moratorium on crude oil transportation through New York State.
  • crude-oil-donate-graphic-v2TAKE ACTION: Protect the river and our communities by telling the DEC to fully study risks from crude oil transport!
  • Sign up for our e-letters to stay informed about this issue. (Click “Crude oil transport” as an interest.)
  • Write letters to the editor of your local newspaper expressing your concerns.
  • Write to your elected representatives to express your concerns.
  • Help Riverkeeper document risks in your community by sharing photos and information via social media with the hashtag #notonmywatch.
  • Get the facts:Crude oil transport factsheet

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