If you’re an individual who has lived for an extended amount of time in the Hudson Valley, chances are that at least one important memory in your life is linked to the Hudson River. You may have proudly taken your parents or grandparents down there during a college visit, or attempted to woo a potential significant other with the sways of the water, or even just gone down by the docks with a few friends for a moment of peace and quiet after a stressful week. Whatever it may entail, these moments are made timeless and memorable by the picturesque scenery of the river, a feeling that is seldom replicated in other locations.
Now imagine those same moments, interrupted by a noisy, smoke billowing, thousand pound oil barge… Not quite the same impact, is it?
That sort of big-business interruption to peaceful river life is one of the many reasons behind the continuing controversy over the U.S. Coast Guard’s proposal for oil barge anchorages sites on the Hudson. The preliminary concept, which would introduce ten locations from Yonkers to Kingston for oil barges to dock, has been widely protested by Hudson Valley residents, politicians, and environmental activists, inciting a months long struggle between the financial interests of federal government and the culture of small town society.
“I’ve lived on the river in Rhinecliff for a long time, and now I see barges coming by about once a day,” says Steve Hutkins, river advocate and Associate Professor of Literature at NYU. “We could just be looking at barges over the river view all the time if this proposal goes through.”
The Maritime Association of the Port of New York and New Jersey made the preliminary proposal for the anchorage sites public on June 9 of last year. The corporation, which represents various different interests in the shipping and petroleum industries, based the proposal on the anticipated increase in oil transportation from the Port of Albany. The anchorages would feature 42 total mooring berths for the vessels to dock in, where they would be allowed to stay for up to 30 days at a time, leading to a massive and almost-constant increase in river traffic.
“The scale of the proposal is unlike anything we’ve ever seen before,” says Andy Bicking, Director of Public Policy for Scenic Hudson, the environmental advocacy agency. “It’s a massive endeavor that would make the river a virtual parking lot for these barges.”
The concerns that the proposal and its subsequent effects have generated go well beyond the disruption of the tourist-attracting, peaceful calm of the river. For starters, the proposal represents a contradiction of the decades-long project to deindustrialize and “clean up” the Hudson. Noise pollution and air pollution are a major concern, as is the possible damage of a recently constructed cable for hydroelectric power. Certain endangered species, particularly the Atlantic Sturgeon, would face threat of extinction. Recreational boating activity on the Hudson would need heavy supervision to avoid tragic accidents. Then there’s the worst-case scenario of a catastrophic oil spill, which would make all of these prior concerns a disastrous reality.
Elizabeth Spinzia is the Supervisor for the Town of Rhinebeck, an area that would feature five to six of the proposal anchorage sites within the stretch of a few miles. She sees the proposal as a direct contradiction to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Clean Energy Standard, which plans to double renewable resources in New York by 2030 and cut down significantly on pollution.
“We’ve worked long and hard to protect the Hudson from reindustrialization,” says Spinzia. “The passage of something like this would set us back in the fight against that progress.”
While local environmental progress is challenging the proposal, the anchorages seem to represent the interests and focuses made clear in the recent overhaul of the federal government. Professor Hutkins notes that the attempts to defund the EPA and the Trump administration’s jaded outlook towards climate change symbolize the shift in the national outlook.
“It seems to be all about gaining profit for the country and not even about domestic consumption,” says Hutkins. “This may be a local story, but the way this situation is going, it may end up being a state versus federal struggle.”
The mandatory public period for comment on the preliminary proposal ran until December 6, but getting in contact with the Coast Guard is not an easy process. The Department of Homeland Security does not have a direct email address for general public comment; therefore, the only way to get in touch with them is to write a letter.
Making the process of protest even more strained are the suspicious circumstances under which the proposal was drafted. In the fall 2016 semester, a group of students at the Environmental Policy Clinic of the Dyson College Department of Environmental Studies and Science at Pace University investigated the Coast Guard’s proposal. Reviewing the Coast Guard’s own procedures on waterway management, the team found that the proposal majorly neglected basic environmental procedures necessary for public introduction.
“The Coast Guard should have completed two major studies of addressing river hazards and impacts, conducted public sessions with mariners, environmental groups, and government, and provided all members of the public the opportunity to change the proposal, or even prove it unnecessary,” cites the group’s press release following the investigation.
Christina Thomas, a clinician at Pace and lead coordinator on the investigation, believes that the negligence and deception of the Coast Guard blindsided those who would protest the anchorage proposal.
“The shipping industry has gained a distinct advantage over the public in the regulatory process,” says Thomas.
The students’ faculty supervisor, Senior Fellow for Environmental Affairs Professor John Cronin, uses his knowledge of river policy to put the discoveries in context. “This is one of the most egregious violations of public transparency and public trust I have seen in four decades working on Hudson River issues,” Cronin says. “The plan needs to be scrapped.”
The team of students authored a letter to Admiral Paul Zukunft on December 5 asking for the withdrawal of the proposal. The Coast Guard (in their only response so far to public comment) noted last month that the process was only step one in a multi-year procedure. However, Thomas is not convinced this response answers their concerns.
“The problem with this argument, is that it does not stand up to what they have published in their own rules and regulations, which is what our letter and press conference was all about,” she says.
This negligence may have put the public at a disadvantage, but it has not stifled the voices of the local population. Scenic Hudson and sister organization Riverkeeper have worked extensively in partnership with bipartisan governmental officials to spread the word on the issue. They’ve hosted formal and informal information sessions, documentary series, press conferences, and protests on the subject throughout the fall and winter. By the end of December, over 10,000 comments had been filed to the Coast Guard.
“Given the kind of interest and the importance of the situation, there always can be more that is done, but Scenic Hudson and Riverkeeper are doing a fantastic job getting the word out,” says Hutkins.
“We want a good, informed public forum, and we need all the information possible for that,” says Bicking. “The Coast Guard needed to be thorough and provide us with everything possible so we could effectively build our arguments. They need to follow through.”
The next step in the process for the Coast Guard is the use of public comments to draft an official proposal. The Coast Guard may hold a public forum after the official proposal is introduced, but according to Hutkins, there’s no regulation that requires them to do so. In fact, Hutkins believes that the Trump administration may have a plan in place to approve the anchorage sites by the end of the spring.
“I urge everyone who thinks that a superhighway of oil transport are a harmful thing for our region to continue writing your elected officials,” says Hutkins. “The voices need to be heard.”
This long ongoing debate will not dissipate overnight, even with an official approval for the sites. All parties interviewed for this piece made it clear that they will continue to work for their community, for the health of the Hudson River, and to preserve those memories made possible by its beauty.
“The Hudson River is a heritage. It belongs to the people of New York,” says Spinzia. “I’ll continue to be an advocate for my community in order to make sure it stays that way.”