Barges versus vistas on the Hudson

By Bill Heltzel

1 Comment

The U.S. Coast Guard is considering new anchorages along a 109-mile stretch of the Hudson River where tugs and barges could wait out storms or wait for a high tide.

That’s not going over well in river towns that have invested heavily in revitalizing their waterfronts or among environmentalists who fear more pollution.

The Coast Guard has posted a proposed rule that would create 10 anchorages from Yonkers to Kingston. They would encompass more than 2,000 acres and accommodate 43 vessels up to 600 feet long.

American Waterways Oper-ators, Hudson River Pilots Association and the tug and barge committee of the Maritime Association of the Port of New York and New Jersey proposed the rule.

The problem, as the maritime interests see it, is that there isn’t enough space to safely park tug boats, barges and other large vessels during emergencies and adverse conditions.

Traffic has increased dramatically in the last few years, the Maritime Association said in a January letter to the Coast Guard, and is expected to continue increasing. But there is only one designated anchorage between Yonkers and the Port of Albany, at Hyde Park, with room for only three vessels.

Depths in parts of the Hudson have narrowed because of irregular dredging, so deep vessels must await high tide. The conditions create a logistical nightmare, especially during severe weather.

“When a tug and barge hit a situation, which happens rather frequently — with the fog and thunderclouds forming and ice in the water and low tide — they need places to anchor,” said Edward J. Kelly, executive director of the Maritime Association. Now they park in the same places proposed in the rule.

“These are places we know are safe and protected,” Kelly said. “They’ve been used for centuries, as a customary and common practice. All we want to do is formalize them and call them anchorages.”

Last year, however, the Coast Guard issued a safety bulletin to operators of commercial vessels reminding them that, “except in cases of great emergency,” they may anchor only in approved anchorages. Flouting the regulation could result in a $40,000 penalty.

The industry casts its proposal as a safe and environmentally sound way to move products as trade volumes increase. Barges and tugs use far less fuel and pollute significantly less than trucks. Barges are double-hulled, so they are unlikely to leak. Crew members must undergo extensive federal background checks.

Vessels typically pull aside for a few hours until conditions improve. Shipping companies, Kelly said, don’t make money when they park.

The Hudson has been a battleground for centuries between industry and recreation, the economy and the environment, practicality and aesthetics.

The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 made it easier to move freight to the East Coast from frontier towns like Chicago, making New York one the nation’s most vital ports.

Today, oil and gas from North Dakota and Pennsylvania travel downriver to refineries. Home heating oil, fuel for power plants, aviation fuel and gasoline move upriver to customers. Sand, salt, aggregate for roadbeds, cement and construction materials are delivered to major industries.

“Basically,” Kelly said, “it’s anything that is overweight or oversized that doesn’t readily fit on rail cars or trucks.”

When they need to park, they just drop anchor. There is no need for infrastructure – no wharves, piers or docks — just a safe spot outside the channel.

But the Hudson is more than a means of transportation.

Around the same time as the opening of the Erie Canal, the river inspired the Hudson River School. Artists depicted the beauty of the river and mountains in idyllic landscapes where people and nature coexisted peacefully.

The Erie Canal’s success made river towns like Poughkeepsie and Newburgh ideal places for factories. Factories dumped toxic wastes into the river, raising concerns about fisheries and drinking water. As manufacturing on the river declined and factories closed, towns revitalized their waterfronts with marinas and residential developments that prize pristine river vistas.

So to some people living along the river, huge barges parked offshore do not seem benign. And along with elected officials, the Business Council of Westchester has joined the mounting opposition to the Coast Guard proposal.

“This proposal to locate what amounts to floating parking lots along the riverfront is a slap in the face to communities such as Yonkers, Dobbs Ferry, Peekskill and others that have made substantial gains attracting new businesses, tourism and development to the waterfront in Westchester,” Business Council of Westchester President and CEO Marsha Gordon said in a statement on Wednesday announcing the business group’s stand on the proposal.

Residents near Port Ewen, near Kingston, have complained about “stadium lighting” and noisy generators on barges that anchor through the night, according to the Environmental Litigation Clinic at the Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University.

When a vessel drops anchor, heavy ground tackle gouges the riverbed. Scenic Hudson, an environmental group based in Poughkeepsie, said in a letter opposing the proposed rule that the damage could disrupt spawning grounds for fish, including Atlantic sturgeon and shortnosed sturgeon that are classified as endangered species.

The organization also worries about the risk of spills on vessels transporting crude oil and refined petroleum products.

The greatest impact could be in Yonkers, where more than $1 billion has been invested in developments that are planned or underway near the waterfront.

The Yonkers Hub would be the biggest anchorage ground, running from JFK Marina Park north to Dobbs Ferry. It would encompass 715 acres in the middle of the river, allow 16 vessels and provide a swing radius of 1,200 feet.

It is also called the Yonkers Extension, as a continuation of an anchorage that runs between the George Washington Bridge and JFK Marina Park.

Spoiling the views, Mayor Mike Spano said in a letter to the Coast Guard, could discourage developers from investing in waterfront projects, lower property values and reduce the public’s enjoyment of the river.

Spano also thinks the anchorage would be used to hold barges to await favorable price changes on commodity markets. “Our pristine Hudson River will be turned into a floating fuel pipeline,” he wrote.

Peter Swiderski, mayor of Hastings-on-Hudson at the northern end of the Yonkers Hub, called the proposal pernicious and horrifying in a letter to residents.

“We lose a remarkable view. Boaters would need to thread around these giants. And we may lose quite a bit more if there is an accident or spill,” he wrote.

Proponents and opponents of the rule have until Sept. 7 to formally comment to the Coast Guard. As of Aug. 17, more than 1,100 comments had been posted on Regulations.gov.

The Coast Guard will analyze the comments. It could revise the proposed rule, hold public hearings and undertake an environmental impact study. A final rule could be proposed in about two years, according to Chief Warrant Officer Allyson Conroy.

Ultimately, authority to establish anchorages goes to Rear Admiral Steven Poulin, commander of the First Coast Guard District in Boston.

“Coast Guard policy must not be driven by aesthetics but by safe usage of the waterways,” the American Waterways Operators said in a letter supporting the anchorages.

The late folk musician Pete Seeger sailed his sloop Clearwater from Beacon to raise awareness of the river’s pollution by companies and co-founded the Clearwater Festival to celebrate the environment and the Hudson. Seeger, said Vitalah Gayle Simon in a comment posted on Regulations.com, “must be singing loudly against the proposed barge project on the beloved Hudson which he dedicated so many years of his life to clean up.”

Print

About the author

Bill Heltzel
Bill Heltzel has covered criminal justice, courts, government and sports – as a beat reporter and investigative reporter – for daily newspapers in Florida, Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. He worked for Bloomberg LP in training and sales. He joined The Business Journal in 2016.

Related Articles

VIDEOS