When marine safety collides with environmental advocacy and non-maritime business interests, the discussion can be contentious, confusing and cumbersome.
In June 2016, the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) opened a public comment period regarding new anchorage zones in the Hudson River; usually a rather low-key set of issues. This proved different. Opponents jumped on the proposal – initially suggested by three maritime organizations – as a backdoor way to facilitate a huge expansion in crude oil shipments on the Hudson.
One year later, this past June, the Coast Guard decided to advance this difficult mix of issues through its PAWSA process – a Ports and Waterways Safety Assessment. The USCG describes the PAWSA as “a disciplined approach to identify major waterway safety hazards, estimate risk levels, and evaluate potential mitigation measures.” The move was welcomed by maritime and environmental groups.
Edward J. Kelly, Executive Director of the Maritime Association of the Port of NY/NJ, said “we are in favor of any process or forum that will clearly establish the facts.” For mariners, the anchorage zones are needed for safety, not facilitating commerce. Riverkeeper is a Hudson River environmental advocacy organization. It writes on its website that Riverkeeper is very much looking “forward to being part of this discussion, and we’re grateful to the Coast Guard for including us.” Scenic Hudson, another environmental group, expressed similar comments.
In September, the Coast Guard announced two PAWSA sessions, each covering two days: November 7 & 8, in Poughkeepsie, and November 15 & 16 in Albany. Participants would be chosen “based on their waterway expertise and to create a broad cross-section of Hudson River stakeholders.” (This report is written between those meeting dates.) Three big areas of contention mark the anchorage zone controversy. For mariners, this involves the basic issue of safety. For environmental and citizens’ groups, the tangle of issues presented by crude oil transport and environmental safety were of primary concern.
Separately, a proposal by Champlain Hudson Power Express (CHPE) to build a 320kV electric transmission cable from Quebec to New York City running, for part of its route, 88 miles length-wise under the Hudson was also in the mix. The cable would be mostly buried but held down by cement “blankets” in sections of impermeable bedrock.
It’s important to recall that the anchorage zones at issue are not new, but have been used by mariners for decades. What is new is the proposal to formally designate the anchorage zones, rather than continuing their informal status as safe havens.
The move to formalize the sites followed a 2015 Coast Guard bulletin “reminding” captains that ‘parking’ was allowed only at designated sites. Therefore, to avoid enforcement issues, the Tug and Barge Committee of the Maritime Association of the Port of NY/NJ, the Hudson River Port Pilot’s Association and the American Waterways Operators (AWO) asked the USCG to formally designate new sites.
Issues & Answers
The issue of safety presents as one area of common ground, although limited. John Lipscomb is Riverkeeper’s vice president for advocacy. Lipscomb, who participated in the recent PAWSA, agrees with industry on safety. If captains need to anchor because of a problem, Lipscomb said, “people are just as eager as industry to be able to anchor rather than proceed at risk. We’re dedicated to keeping it possible for vessels to anchor and where it’s suitable to anchor when there’s a safety issue.”
Amity breaks down, though, regarding formal status. For Riverkeeper, this new standing is troublesome because it opens the possibility that vessels will deliberately use the sites for, say, logistics purposes, not just emergencies. Industry could play the river, so to speak, moving vessels in response to market and business conditions, taking advantage of parking on the shoulder of a public highway because it’s newly convenient for berthing, access or congestion. “They’ve had (these sites) for decades,” Lipscomb said, “now they want something different.”
Mariners, however, insists that there’s no economy in leaving a barge idling on the river. But, Lipscomb counters that Riverkeeper members regularly send him pictures of vessels parked “day after day.”
Oil looms in the background of the PAWSA discussions, and suspicions, about safety versus commerce. In the last two years, oil shipments have declined on the Hudson. Some analysts say that crude transport has shifted from barges to the railroads, where it will likely stay, because of competitive reasons.
Others say: not so fast. Two years is a blink of an eye for conclusions about risks with disastrous consequences. Oil markets swing wildly and renewed demand could make Hudson transit attractive again, particularly to supply new export markets. It would be shortsighted, advocates insist, to pull back now on environmental safeguards for a river clinging to a fragile recovery.
Riverkeeper proposes that any vessel moving to an anchorage must also call the Coast Guard advising of an emergency. This requirement would prevent non-emergent stops, Lipscomb says, while keeping open all current sites. “(Mariners) want official designation,” he commented, “but the public is saying since we don’t know why, we’re saying ‘No.’ You can’t park eight boats in Kingston just for the convenience of being near Albany.”
Mariners look at designation differently. Lipscomb references the traditional anchorages with the expectation that they will always be there. But that’s not the case. Designation is critical because without it the existing anchorage sites may be forced off limits by CHPE’s 88-mile transmission cable. Designation would require CHPE to avoid official sites. The mariners originally proposed 10 anchorage sites providing space for up to 43 vessels, along about 100 miles of the river. Ed Kelly, however, expects a final decision would likely approve far fewer anchorages.
Critically though, with formal status, at least those fewer sites would be codified as permanent. If the more numerous sites remain as informal it’s possible that many would be lost or inaccessible because of the cable. Mariners need a decision, sooner not later, and before the cable impacts and possibly excludes anchorage zones, which, after all, aren’t just casual, easily replaced spaces.
Eric Johansson is chairman of the Maritime Association’s Tug and Barge Committee, and another participant in the PAWSA’s first session, in Poughkeepsie. Johansson was a tug pilot for 20 years. He said that when he started working, if he pulled over every time there was some fog on the Hudson, he would have been fired. Today, in contrast, he said safety is such a high priority that captains are ready to pull over at any time to avoid risks of collision or accident.
The meaning of “long term” anchorage is another unresolved issue. John Lipscomb says “long term” has never been defined within the context of officially designated anchorages. For Riverkeeper, and others, there is an implicit, and maybe deliberate, ambiguity here, that “long term” means a vessel could stay parked for a day or a week, again, stationary not because of safety, but seeking other advantage.
For mariners, “long term” references a permanent, not a temporary site, established just for a limited time, because of water conditions, for example, or seasonal wildlife or construction. Riverkeeper contends that the Coast Guard needs to clarify its authority over the Hudson. Lipscomb used the phrase “messy language” regarding authority. He added that New York State recently passed a bill giving new responsibilities to the NY’s Department of Environmental Conservation regarding how petroleum products
are shipped within the Hudson estuary. He wants the USCG PAWSA report to reflect this broad context of concern for the Hudson.
Beyond the Waterway
It’s hard to assess how, or even whether, the transmission cable fits in the PAWSA process. No one from CHPE participated in the Poughkeepsie session, nor was there anyone among the official list of observers. One person at the Poughkeepsie meeting said the CHPE cable came up often in discussions. He estimated that of 40 people, however, maybe half didn’t know of the issue, indicating that time had to be spent bringing about twenty people up to speed, a bit unusual among experts chosen for their “waterway expertise.”
Mariners cite two major concerns: anchor-cable snags and electromagnetic interference with navigational compasses. CHPE has presented a Navigational Risk Assessment (NRA) report, including an “anchor snag manual,” evaluating those potential hazards. It concludes negligible risks for compasses and anchors. Mariners want a closer look.
Brian Vahey is Senior Manager, Atlantic Region, for the American Waterways Operators. He is part of an industry-maritime group that closely reviewed CHPE’s NRA.
His concerns include how the probability of anchor strikes was calculated, that AIS (automatic identification system
) traffic information did not account for tugboat-barge footprints and inaccurately presents the probability of an anchor strike. Furthermore, CHPE’s probability calculations, Vahey said, depend in large part on anchoring practices in waterways in Europe
and on the North American west coast, “which are not indicative of the unique operating conditions on the Hudson.”
“Considering what’s at stake,” Vahey said, “we believe that developers should do as much as humanly possible to drive down risk, and we don’t believe the CHPE cable project has gotten there.” Vahey’s group suggests, for example, that the cable should be buried at 15 feet, not seven.
After the second PAWSA meeting, the Coast Guard will take the information to prepare a final report. This will take a few months. For Coast Guard report writers, it’s not an easy assignment.
(As published in the December 2017 edition of Marine News