Blogs > Boat Blog > Barge spills 31,500 gallons of Bakken crude oil on Mississippi River; highlights risk to Hudson

Barge spills 31,500 gallons of Bakken crude oil on Mississippi River; highlights risk to Hudson

Last month, a tank barge collided with a towboat on the Mississippi River, spilling some 31,500 gallons of light Bakken crude into the water and prompting officials to close a 65-mile stretch of river – roughly the distance between New York City and Newburgh/Beacon along the Hudson River.

This is the first spill of Bakken crude from a barge accident in the U.S.

Public outrage has rightly flared regarding increased rail shipments of explosive Bakken crude through neighborhoods like those in Albany, based on a rash of explosions throughout North America last year. But much less discussion has taken place about the risks to the Hudson River by what happens after the trains arrive in Albany — as millions of gallons of the same oil is then offloaded from trains and placed onto huge ships and barges headed south along the river.

The impact such a spill would have on the Hudson River itself could devastate the estuary, home to numerous protected or significant species, and miles of irreplaceable habitat. The accident on the Mississippi wasn’t uncommonly large, but still produced a surface sheen 60 miles long.

Here on the Hudson, barges can carry 3 to 4 million gallons of crude at a time (more or less depending on the class of barge), which is the equivalent of an entire unit train or more of rail tank cars stretching over a mile long.

In addition, the Afrodite, the ship loaded by Texas-based Buckeye Partners at the Port of Albany, carries about 8.4 million gallons of crude at a time during weekly trips along the length of the Hudson River. In fact, it was an accident involving Afrodite’s predecessor, Steena Primorsk, that first shed light on the growing transport of crude on the Hudson.

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. It was carrying 12 million gallons of crude oil—about the same amount spilled by the Exxon Valdez—Fortunately, it had a double hull so no oil was spilled into the shallow waters near Schodack Island — prime shad and herring spawning and nursery habitat also noted for the abundance of shorebirds, wading birds and waterfowl. It is one of 40 state-designated “significant fish and wildlife habitats” in the Hudson River estuary.

The recent accident on the Mississippi, like many before it, was likely the result of human error – the same kind of human error that has caused many similar accidents on the Hudson and Mississippi rivers.

While the Hudson River has long been part of shipping routes for other petroleum products, like heating oil and gasoline, crude oil poses an entirely 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.”

A 2010 pipeline spill of heavy crude into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan still isn’t cleaned up.

These are just a few relevant accidents involving vessels:
• 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 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 deal a blow to the regional economy, setting back decades of effort to restore the river. Is it really a price we can afford to pay?

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