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Riverkeeper Alert: Drinking Water at Risk from Crude Oil Spill

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The crude oil tanker Afrodite passes under Walkway Over the Hudson, near the drinking water intakes for the City of Poughkeepsie and the Town of Lloyd.
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The crude oil tanker Afrodite passes under Walkway Over the Hudson, near the drinking water intakes for the City of Poughkeepsie and the Town of Lloyd.

The crude oil tanker Afrodite passes under Walkway Over the Hudson, near the drinking water intakes for the City of Poughkeepsie and the Town of Lloyd.

The transportation of crude oil in the Hudson Valley has been permitted without any comprehensive study of risks to the environment and public safety–and a dangerous expansion of this industry could further endanger the drinking water for thousands of residents.

To alert communities to the risk, Riverkeeper wrote on July 24, 2014 to several communities that draw water from the Hudson River–the City of Poughkeepsie, the Dutchess County Water and Wastewater Authority, the towns of Lloyd, Hyde Park and Esopus, and the Village of Rhinebeck. Below is an excerpt of those letters, updated to reflect the extension of a key public comment period deadline:

Before 2011, there was little or no crude oil being transported through the Hudson Valley. In 2013, 1.6 billion gallons of crude oil was transferred from train to barge in Albany for transport down the Hudson River. The transfer of up to 2.8 billion gallons of crude oil at the Port of Albany is permitted annually. Additionally, up to 30 trains per week—each carrying millions of gallons or more—are traveling through the Hudson Valley along the railroad tracks on the west side of the Hudson.

The crude oil currently being transported is from the Bakken region of North Dakota and neighboring states. Transportation of large volumes of crude oil presents a new risk to the environment and public health of the Hudson Valley that differs from longstanding transportation of refined petroleum products like home heating fuel and gasoline. Particularly, drinking water intakes on the Hudson River, such as serve thousands of homes and businesses, are vulnerable in the event of a spill.

Global Partners LP has proposed even further expansion of its operations, requiring retrofits of its terminals in Albany and New Windsor, Orange County, to facilitate the transfer of heavy crude oils, such as Canadian tar sands from trains to barges, for transport on the Hudson River. These projects could result in an increase of 1.8 billion gallons of crude oil transported annually, and the addition of two oil trains per day from Selkirk to New Windsor through much of the Hudson Valley. The transport of heavy crude oils would dramatically increase this new and grave risk to the river, its ecosystem, and our communities—including the drinking water for your community.

Both types of oil—Bakken and heavy crudes—pose significant and distinct risks. Bakken crude oil is highly volatile, and has been involved in several catastrophic accidents, most notably the destruction of downtown Lac-Megantic, Quebec, and the loss of 47 lives following a train derailment a year ago this month. A barge collision in the Mississippi River in February 2014 spilled 31,500 gallons of Bakken crude oil, resulting in 65 miles of river being closed. Just 95 gallons was recovered, according to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. A train derailment in Lynchburg, Virginia, resulted in a Bakken crude oil spill into the James River in April 2014, setting the river on fire, and temporarily closing drinking water supplies.

A spill of heavy crude oil could be even worse, because heavy crude sinks. Any recovery of spilled heavy crude oil requires clear and gentle water, and even then a successful response can only be expected to recover 5% of spilled oil. The spill response experts we have consulted have suggested that recovery of heavy crude oil in the Hudson, with its strong currents, tides and turbidity, would be impossible. A spill would likely require the shutdown of drinking water intakes in the vicinity. A pipeline spill of more than 800,000 gallons of heavy crude affected 35 miles of the Kalamazoo River in Michigan, and hasn't been fully remediated four years later, despite a cleanup effort that could cost more than $1 billion.

Up to 30 trains per week—two to four trains per day—carrying approximately 3 million gallons of oil each pass drinking water intakes for Poughkeepsie and Lloyd on the CSX Hudson Line tracks between West Park, Ulster County, and Haverstraw, Rockland County. One barge per day, holding roughly 4 million gallons of crude oil, also passes these and all other Hudson River drinking water intakes, including those for Hyde Park, Port Ewen and Rhinebeck. Finally, once every week to 10 days, the tanker Afrodite, with a capacity of 8.4 million gallons, departs Albany for New Brunswick, Canada, passing all Hudson River intakes.

It would take a single accident of resulting in the breach of any rail car, tanker or barge to cause catastrophic harm. This risk is not hypothetical. In New York State, at least four oil train derailments have occurred since December, and the first tanker laden with Bakken crude—carrying as much oil as was spilled by the Exxon Valdez—ran aground and ruptured its outer hull six miles south of Albany in December 2012. A crude oil spill from a train in the Port of Albany was reported by the press just this month (July 2014). Fortunately, none of these accidents resulted in the type of significant spills that have so seriously damaged other communities and their rivers.

Despite this risk, New York State has already granted permits for two oil terminals in Albany owned by Global Partners LP and Buckeye Partners LP to transfer 2.8 billion gallons of crude oil from train to barge and ship with no comprehensive environmental impact study under the State Environmental Quality Review Act.

The public now has the opportunity—until August 1—to submit comments to the Department of Environmental Conservation, urging it to order a full environmental impact study of Global Partners LP's current application to expand its Albany terminal facilities to allow the receipt and handling of heavy crude oils. Given the increased, substantial risk that this expansion would present to the drinking water of many communities up and down the Hudson Valley, including your own, the DEC must be urged to study questions such as:

  • What drinking water sources are vulnerable to a spill in the Hudson River?
  • What backup supplies are available to communities that rely on drinking water from the Hudson River?
  • What remedies are available if drinking water intakes are fouled by crude oil?
  • Do the companies involved have insurance adequate to cover community costs for expenses related to spills, including the cost of temporary or long term replacement of drinking water supplies?

We respectfully submit that communities like yours that rely on drinking water from the Hudson River should consider these and other critical questions, and urge the state to fully study the risks before granting the permits necessary to operate these crude oil boilers.

Comments can be addressed to the DEC Region 4 and sent to r4dep@gw.dec.state.ny.us, and must be submitted by the comment deadline of Sept. 30, 2014.

Additionally, Riverkeeper has called on the state to revoke the existing permits that allowed for the throughput of 2.8 billion gallons annually in the Port of Albany, as the law allows when new information has come to light since the permits were granted. In this case of these permits, the spate of serious accidents is one obvious reason to reconsider these permits and order full environmental impact studies. We encourage you to join us in this effort.

Drinking water is only one of many concerns associated with a crude oil spill in the Hudson Valley. A spill could decimate a community; set back 50 years of progress in cleaning and restoring the Hudson River ecosystem; undermine billions of dollars in public investments on the waterfront, ranging from water and wastewater treatment plants to public parks; damage important economic sectors, such as real estate, tourism and waterfront business; and put at risk industrial and power plants that rely on water drawn from the Hudson River.

If you would like more information about this issue, Riverkeeper stands ready to help.

Crude oil trains hug the shoreline for many miles, including near drinking water intakes for the City of Poughkeepsie and the Town of Lloyd. Photo courtesy Matt Kierstead.

Crude oil trains hug the shoreline for many miles, including near drinking water intakes for the City of Poughkeepsie and the Town of Lloyd. Photo courtesy Matt Kierstead.

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