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Oil Tanker Ran Aground 2 Years Ago on Hudson – Have We Heeded the Warning Call?

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Punctured outer hull of the Stena Primorsk
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Two years ago, on December 20, 2012, the oil tanker Stena Primorsk ran aground near Albany with 12 million gallons of Dakota crude oil on board. Several compartments of the outer hull were torn open – but not the inner hull which contained the crude oil, so no spill occurred.

Punctured outer hull of the Stena Primorsk

Punctured outer hull of the Stena Primorsk

The Stena carries about the same amount of oil as was spilled from the Exxon Valdez in Alaska in 1989. That spill caused tremendous environmental damage and cost over 2 billion dollars to clean up. Environmental damage persists in Alaska at the site of that spill even now, 25 years later. We were so lucky. A large spill in the mid- to upper Hudson Estuary would be very difficult to respond to in time and the damage to the River would be extreme. The Hudson has been used and abused for many years, and many habitats and species have been reduced to all-time lows – so a large oil spill would be catastrophic.

We and the river got really lucky this time. But the Stena accident was a stark warning, a second chance for us to improve spill response and oil recovery capability in light of the new transport of crude oil in the Hudson Valley.

So has anything changed since 2012?

Sadly and shockingly, the answer is not much. The river and Hudson Valley communities are facing the same imminent risks to public safety and the environment that they did two years ago:

Missbargespill• The Stena Primorsk was “replaced” by the Afrodite, a tanker that can hold up to 8 million gallons, but the risk of a catastrophic oil spill remains. While the double hull of the Stena Primorsk helped prevent a massive leak of oil in 2012, it would not prevent a spill in a ship-to-ship or similar collision – the Galveston Bay and Mississippi River spills in 2014 are proof of that. Case in point: the Feb. 22, 2014, tug and barge collision on the Mississippi (left) spilled 33,600 gallons. There was sheen for 60 miles and 95 gallons was recovered.

• The current Coast Guard spill response plan is inadequate to deal with a crude spill on the mid- or upper Hudson, from a barge or tank train accident. Coast Guard and oil shippers’ resources are concentrated in New York Harbor, and the plan doesn’t address a spill of Bakken or heavy tar sands crude into the river north of the metro area. The Coast Guard has vowed to update the plan – but we haven’t seen a revised plan yet.

Lynchburg-crude-oil-train-derailment_loRes-viaWaterkeeperAlliance-2cropped• In addition, inherently dangerous DOT-111 tank cars continue to carry millions of gallons of explosive Bakken crude down the west of Hudson rail corridor every day, endangering communities along the route, and posing a catastrophic risk of flaming oil spilling into the Hudson. One look at downtown Lac Megantic, Quebec, where 47 people died, or the James River on fire after the Lynchburg Bakken train derailment, and you’ll see what could happen.

• Unlike barges and ships, 4 million gallon crude oil trains don’t have to have their own spill response plans – it’s a loophole in federal law that no agency has attempted to close, despite numerous accidents that caused death and destruction across the U.S. and Canada. Instead, local first responders are burdened with responding to massive fires from explosive oil trains, often without the proper equipment or training to protect themselves or their communities.

bridge2• Poorly maintained rail infrastructure, including rusting and crumbling rail bridges on the CSX line along the Hudson are not being repaired or even inspected regularly, putting communities and the river at risk. Rail shippers are left to “self-certify” the safety of their systems, while New York State inspection blitzes in other parts of the state, not on the Hudson, find dozens of violations. The state proudly proclaimed a doubling of rail inspectors in New York. The sad truth is, this really means we’ll have 10 inspectors for the entire state rail system, instead of five. More inspectors are needed, and federal inspections of rail bridges must start immediately. Bridges found to be unsafe must be closed until repaired.

Riverkeeper has taken action to counter these risks, including blocking Global’s plans to ship tar sands crude down the Hudson, working with the Coast Guard and EPA to finally develop acceptable spill response plans, calling on federal railroad regulators to issue an emergency order taking DOT-111s off the rails and documenting crumbling rail bridges in the Valley – we won’t rest until the river and our communities are made safer from the scourge of the virtual pipeline of crude oil down the Hudson.

Keep the Hudson River flowing!
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