A pair of oil barges idling at the Port of Albany loomed over the waterfront recently, dwarfing two tugboats and a flock of seagulls that floated by on the Hudson River.
The barges, both 116 feet long and tethered to tugboats, were preparing for their trip south on the river, laden with oil. The tugboats that would guide them — the Dean Reinauer and the Reinauer Twins — are two of 14 tugboats that ferried crude oil barges down the Hudson River last year, according to ClipperData, a company that tracks the shipping industry.
It’s the last leg of a journey that began in the Bakken Shale Formation of North Dakota, where a recent oil boom has transformed the once-sleepy Port of Albany into a major transportation hub for domestic crude oil.
While fiery train derailments across the U.S. and Canada have drawn New Yorkers’ attention to the dangers of transporting crude oil by rail, there has been much less focus on the potential dangers of shipping oil down the Hudson River by barge. But some environmentalists worry that a crude oil spill would wreak havoc on a river that has recovered well after enduring decades of industrial pollution that nearly destroyed it.
In addition, safety regulations governing tugboats have not been renewed despite a decade-old congressional directive; and the U.S. Coast Guard’s spill-response plans for the Hudson River were not updated after oil shipments began swelling four years ago.
“Everyone points to barge traffic as potentially having the most immediate catastrophic impact,” said Roger Downs, a director at the Sierra Club in Albany who has spent most of his life living by the river and working to revive it.
Shipments on the Hudson River of the so-called “Bakken crude” oil have ramped up dramatically since 2011, the year the first train arrived from North Dakota at the Port of Albany. Each month, millions of gallons of Bakken crude come by train to Albany, where it is piped into silo-shaped bulk storage containers. Some of that crude oil is then loaded onto barges and steered by tugboats to refineries on the Eastern Seaboard.
Yet the tugboats used to move the oil barges are often decades old, and all of them have been involved in at least one accident in the past several years, including incidents like engine breakdowns, steering failures, and electrical malfunctions, according to a federal vessel database. Still, none of the tugboats are subject to official safety inspections, even though more than a decade ago Congress ordered the Coast Guard to create an inspection program and strengthen the requirements for crew and equipment aboard the escort vessels.
“The Hudson River has made a startling come back over the past 40 years,” Downs said. “One crude oil spill on the river could set all this progress back for decades.”
Though officials with the tugboat industry claim they generally favor the forthcoming regulations, many oppose some of the specific rules proposed by the Coast Guard, including measures to prevent crew fatigue and equipment failure. The industry says these proposals are unnecessary and that tugboats are already safe.
While there hasn’t been a spill on the Hudson, there have been close calls. In December 2012, the oil tanker Stena Primorsk, which is self-propelled and does not rely on tugboats, was carrying 12 million gallons of crude on its maiden voyage from Albany when it grounded near Bethlehem. A 13-foot gash was torn into the hull, but a second inner hull remained intact and prevented an oil spill, which could have fouled the Hudson for miles. (Tankers still make regular trips to Albany for oil, although most of the Bakken crude is shipped on barges.)
“As far as it happening again, I would hope not, but that is why they are called accidents,” said Richard Hendrick, general manager at the Port of Albany.
The Stena Primorsk never returned to Albany after the mishap, and the tanker Afrodite, which is about 40 feet narrower, now makes most of the trips. Still, shipping data indicates that barges carry roughly 70 percent of the oil on the Hudson River.
Last February, an oil barge spilled 31,500 gallons of Bakken crude into the Mississippi River after its tugboat collided with another tug. The spill marked the first time Bakken crude had spilled from a barge into a U.S. waterway.
Due to Bakken crude’s toxicity and tendency to catch fire, Coast Guard responders waited 12 hours before approaching the oil, according to the Coast Guard’s safety journal. By then, there wasn’t much oil left to recover – responders collected just 95 gallons, according to a report by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.
In a journal article addressing the spill, the Coast Guard identified the Hudson River, along with the Mississippi and Columbia, as “areas seeing significant increases in commerce and traffic,” with a corresponding jump in the risk of oil spills.
The Coast Guard’s plan to respond to a spill on the Hudson was last revised before crude started coming down the Hudson from Albany. It does not contemplate the challenges posed by Bakken crude, nor does it account for the possibility of a spill on the northern stretch of the Hudson River, near Albany, according to a Coast Guard official.
Over the past year, some state officials have expressed concern about what some see as the Coast Guard’s lack of preparedness on the Hudson River, while working with the agency to hasten publication of an updated response plan.
In April 2014, state and federal officials jointly announced their intention to update the response plans. Those plans are still being developed, according to Coast Guard spokesman Charles Rowe.
Also still in the works are the safety and inspection rules, which Congress ordered the Coast Guard to create more than 10 years ago.
At the time, the Congressional Budget Office estimated the Coast Guard would be able to create the safety regulations and begin vessel inspections by 2008. The Coast Guard still has not published the final regulations.
“There has been some frustration… with the decade it has taken to write these regulations. The issue has been raised with the Coast Guard on several occasions,” said an aide for the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the rule has not been finalized.
The Coast Guard finished a final draft of the regulations in early April, though they have not been made public. Industry officials with knowledge of the rule-making said they expect the Coast Guard to roll out the safety regulations by the end of the year. After that, vessels may have several years to comply with the new rules.
Drafting the new rules “takes a certain amount of time,” Rowe said, but they “should be published in the near future.”
The Coast Guard would not discuss details of the final regulations or how they will differ from rules it proposed in 2011. In justifying those initial proposals, the agency detailed safety risks posed by uninspected tugboats, particularly those towing oil barges.
“The Coast Guard believes that focusing our initial efforts on inspecting those towing vessels moving commercial barges, especially those towing oil or other dangerous and combustible cargoes …is reasonable,” the notice said. With such vessels, “the potential for casualties that cause permanent injury or death… and/ or environmental damage is greatest due to the nature of their service.”
According to the 2011 notice, the Coast Guard was considering a ban on the industry’s customary “six-on, six-off” sleep routine, which allows crew on overnight trips to take six hours of rest between six-hour work shifts. Under the six-on, six-off system, “fatigue is inevitable,” creating needless danger in an industry in which human error accounts for more than half of serious accidents, the notice said.
The Coast Guard also recommended standards for equipment aboard towing vessels, including a requirement – similar to one already in place for oil tankers – that tugboats install independent steering and propulsion systems, so if one system fails another can replace it. Another requirement would set standards for electrical installations to avoid “poorly wired and insufficiently maintained electrical systems,” which the Coast Guard found “pose sufficient risk to justify” regulation, the report said.
The Coast Guard also asked industry representatives to weigh in on the proposed rules.
Among the more vocal of those making comments was the American Waterways Operators. Boasting a membership of 350 companies and reporting federal lobbying expenditures of more than $4.4 million since 2010, the AWO is the largest trade association of tugboat and barge operators in the United States.
Settoon Towing, the owner of the tug whose barge spilled Bakken crude into the Mississippi last year, is an AWO member, as are four of the six companies that towed Bakken down the Hudson in 2014.
The AWO has always supported the forthcoming safety regime, said Jennifer Carpenter, AWO’s executive vice president. “We really saw it as an opportunity to go from good to great.”
Yet the AWO opposes many of the proposals put forth by the Coast Guard, including the six-on, six-off ban, the independent-steering system requirement and the enhanced electrical standards.
The AWO argued that mariners were trained to handle the six-on, six-off schedule and that longer periods of uninterrupted sleep would not reduce fatigue. As for the equipment upgrades, they “are unnecessary and will not lead to an increase in towing vessel safety that is in any way proportionate to their costs.”
The volume of oil spilled from barges has dropped sharply in the last 20 years, according to the AWO’s data. The industry attributes the reduction in spills, in part, to a law passed in the wake of the Exxon-Valdez spill that required oil barges to have two hulls. The AWO also said the decline in oil spills is a result of its requirement that its members’ vessels adhere to industry safety standards.
The AWO also opposed some of the proposals because of their potential cost, estimating that complying with the proposed requirements could cost as much as $300,000 per vessel.
McAllister Towing and Transportation Co., Inc., whose tugs the Christine McAllister and Marjorie B. McAllister have towed Bakken crude from the Port of Albany, is similarly alarmed by the potential safety costs. “The retrofitting of each vessel involved in the movement of tank barges will be cost prohibitive,” the company wrote in public comments.
“Those systems are big-cost items, to have a completely independent steering system,” said Buckley McAllister, the company’s president. “It’s not clear all of our vessels would even be capable of being retrofitted with that equipment to the specification that’s suggested.”
Yet the Christine McAllister, built in 1975, has been involved in accidents marked by the kind of equipment failures the Coast Guard’s proposals would seek to prevent. On May 2, 2013, for instance, the Christine McAllister was leaving the Port of Albany when its propulsion system faltered after sustaining damage to a propeller shaft. On March 6, 2007, the boat lost propulsion and some maneuverability when its starboard engine shut down, according to Coast Guard reports.
Since 2000, the 14 tugboats that have helped move Bakken crude on the Hudson River have been involved in a combined 131 accidents, according to Coast Guard data. The incidents include groundings and engine failures.
Kirby Corporation, another AWO member whose tugboats have towed Bakken crude oil down the Hudson, also opposed the equipment proposals. Kirby estimated upgrading its vessels to meet the proposed requirements would cost at least $101,707 per boat, amounting to a “significant cost of compliance for virtually every affected towing vessel.”
In total, Kirby would have to spend roughly $25.1 million to upgrade each of its 247 towing vessels. That’s about 37 percent of the $68.1 million Kirby earned in profits in the final quarter of 2014, according to the company’s most recent earnings report.
Kirby was fined in March 2014 by Texas regulators after its barge spilled roughly 168,000 gallons of refined oil into the Houston Ship Channel in Galveston Bay. The Associate Press reported at the time that Kirby had paid out more than $51,000 for dozens of mostly minor spills since 2008.
Kirby did not respond to a request for an interview.
This article was produced in partnership with the Albany Times Union.