The Progressive


A project of Common Dreams

For Immediate Release

Mollie Matteson, (802) 318-1487

Lawsuit Launched to Protect Endangered Wildlife, Millions of People From Oil Spills Along Hudson River


In the face of rapidly expanding shipments of highly explosive crude oil through Albany and along the Hudson River, the Center for Biological Diversity today filed a formal notice of intent to sue the U.S. Coast Guard and Environmental Protection Agency for failing to update oil spill plans. The existing antiquated protocols -- developed before the oil transport boom that now funnels billions of gallons through the region annually -- fail to adequately protect endangered species and people dependent on the river.

The notice, required under the Endangered Species Act, identifies 17 federally protected endangered species, including Atlantic sturgeon, sea turtles and piping plovers, that are threatened by the increased risk of spills.

"The Hudson River is the life blood of New York -- its past, its future, its identity. It's also a natural treasure. A major oil spill here would be a disaster for wildlife and people alike," said Mollie Matteson, a senior scientist with the Center.

Trains began bringing North Dakota crude oil through Albany in late 2011. In two years' time, crude oil shipping through that city has gone from zero to a permitted capacity of 2.8 billion gallons per year. Some of the oil is loaded on ships or barges at Albany and taken down the Hudson River. Much of the rest continues by train along the shore of the Hudson to refineries in New Jersey. The rapid expansion of oil transport through the city and in the Hudson Valley has occurred, until recently, with essentially no public notification and minimal governmental oversight.

"Given the volume of oil now being transported by train, ship, and barge through the Hudson River corridor, and the terrible safety record we've seen for crude-by-rail shipments, it's a matter of when, not if, there will be a major spill," said Matteson. "And right now we're just not prepared."

A recent series of catastrophic train accidents has sharply increased public attention to the issue of "crude-by-rail" transport. In July 2013 an oil train carrying "Bakken" crude from North Dakota derailed and exploded in the small town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing 47 people, incinerating part of the downtown, and spilling 1.5 million gallons of oil, much of it into the nearby lake. Since then, fiery derailments of huge oil trains, sometimes pulling 100 tanker cars or more, have also occurred in North Dakota, Alabama and New Brunswick.

In response to this spate of explosive train wrecks, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration issued a safety alert in early January warning that Bakken crude poses a particular risk because of its flammability. Later the same month, the National Transportation Safety Board and Transportation Safety Board of Canada issued a joint statement that expressed concern "that major loss of life, property damage and environmental consequences can occur when large volumes of crude oil or other flammable liquids are transported on a single train involved in an accident."

In addition to Bakken crude, trains and ships in the Hudson River corridor may soon be transporting Alberta tar sands. An oil storage and transport company, Global Partners, recently applied for a permit to install seven oil heating units in Albany to facilitate transfer of oil from tanker cars to ships or barges. Light Bakken crude has not required heating.

Despite repeated inquiries from the public and media regarding where the new crude oil will come from, Global has not disclosed the source of the heavy crude that will require heating. Many observers believe the oil will be tar sands, a heavy, thick substance mined from the boreal forest region of western Canada that requires heating or addition of diluents in order to be made more fluid.

Transport of tar sands on or along the Hudson would be particularly risky for the river's aquatic life, as tar sands spilled in water sink to the bottom and is expensive and difficult to remove. A 2010 spill of tar sands in the Kalamazoo River in Michigan has cost nearly $1 billion to remove and the cleanup is still not complete. Dredging -- which has been done in the Kalamazoo River -- could be particularly harmful to fish and other wildlife in the Hudson.

Atlantic and shortnose sturgeons spawn in the riverbed of the Hudson, and young sturgeon find shelter in gravel-bottomed areas as they migrate downriver. Sea turtles that ply the mouth of the river in the warmer months forage on the river bottom, and could be killed by dredging, or their food sources could be damaged.

Federally protected species in the Hudson River, New York Bay and nearby coastal waters include the two species of sturgeon, as well as green sea turtles, loggerhead sea turtles, humpback whales and North Atlantic right whales. Piping plovers and roseate terns nest on beaches on Long Island, where an endangered plant, the seabeach amaranth, is also found. The red knot, which makes one of the longest migrations known in the world, from wintering areas in Tierra del Fuego to breeding grounds in the Canadian Arctic, makes an important stopover in the mid-Atlantic region, including the New York Bay area. The red knot is proposed for addition to the federal list of threatened species. An oil spill in the bay could affect these shore birds and the beach-dwelling amaranth. In all the lawsuit names 17 species that may be harmed by oil-spill response activities.

The Center's legal challenge focuses on the New York/New Jersey Area Contingency Plan, an emergency response document that lays out how emergency management and environmental protection agencies will respond to an oil spill in the Hudson River and New York Bay area. The lead federal agencies on the plan must formally consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service with regard to potential harm emergency response and cleanup activities may cause to species protected under the Endangered Species Act. The recent dramatic changes in the amount and type of oil being transported in the Hudson River Valley necessitates an update in emergency plans, according to the lawsuit.

At the Center for Biological Diversity, we believe that the welfare of human beings is deeply linked to nature — to the existence in our world of a vast diversity of wild animals and plants. Because diversity has intrinsic value, and because its loss impoverishes society, we work to secure a future for all species, great and small, hovering on the brink of extinction. We do so through science, law and creative media, with a focus on protecting the lands, waters and climate that species need to survive.

(520) 623-5252