Home Government Public swamps Coast Guard review of Hudson barge anchorages

Public swamps Coast Guard review of Hudson barge anchorages

The U.S. Coast Guard has proposed and enacted two rules concerning anchorages on the Hudson River in the past two years. Each received one public comment.

A 1999 rule that established an anchorage at Hyde Park drew only two letters.

In the latest proposal, to establish 10 anchorage grounds from Yonkers to Kingston, the Coast Guard logged 10,176 comments.

Public opinion, as measured by a sampling of the comments, is overwhelmingly opposed to new anchorage grounds.

Business and environmental groups have united in opposition. Elected officials, from towns along the river and all the way to the governor’s office, have voiced disapproval.

A pleasure craft passes a barge on the Hudson River near Poughkeepsie. Photo by Bob Rozycki

“It’s a mystery why we’re getting this much pushback,” said Edward Kelly.

He is executive director of the Maritime Association of the Port of New York / New Jersey, one of several maritime organizations that prompted the preliminary rulemaking proposal to create anchorages.

The maritime interests say they need places to park tugs, barges and ships during emergencies and bad weather.

It has been routine practice for many years to pull aside in the very places they have proposed. But last year, the Coast Guard issued a safety bulletin that reminded commercial operators that they may not park in unofficial locations unless there is a great emergency.

The proposed rule would make the customary locations official.

But the proposal has hit a nerve.

Consider the scale.

Ten anchorages could accommodate 43 vessels up to 600 feet long within 2,000 acres along a 109-mile stretch of the Hudson. The Yonkers hub alone would take up 715 acres, from JFK Marina Park to Dobbs Ferry, and would be an extension of an existing anchorage that runs south to the George Washington Bridge.

Consider the economics.

Towns along the river have invested heavily in rezoning and developing their waterfronts. Abandoned industrial sites have been replaced with modern residential buildings.

Anchorages would make waterfronts less desirable for redevelopment, according to Mark Chertok, an environmental lawyer who represents the Hudson River Waterfront Alliance, a consortium of river towns opposed to the anchorages.

“Yonkers would suffer serious economic impacts,” he said, if anchorages chill waterfront development

Consider the environment.

The riverfront was once heavily industrialized and had become a sewer for pollutants. The federal Clean Water Act of 1972, the decline of factories and cleanup efforts by governments and environmental groups have enabled the river to restore itself.

Scientists from Delaware State University and University of Delaware who surveyed the existing Hyde Park anchorage said the damage from anchors gouging the riverbed could disrupt spawning by Atlantic sturgeon, an endangered species.

Consider the aesthetics.

The Hudson has been designated as an American Heritage River. Residents of the river towns value untrammeled views from the Palisades to the Catskills.

“The Hudson River is a national jewel,” Chertok commented in his memorandum of law submitted to the Coast Guard. It is “one of America’s most important and scenic waterways.”

Consider a suspected hidden agenda.

Commercial traffic is declining, so there is no need for more places to park, opponents say. All but one of the proposed anchorages are for long-term use, not short-term use that could be justified in bad weather or emergencies.

Critics think the maritime interests want to park oil barges until higher market prices make it advantageous to unload their cargo.

“This use of the river for arbitrage purposes would be an abuse of federal navigational authority,” Chertok said, and would allow “an invaluable public resource to be converted into free warehousing for private commercial benefit.”

Scale, economics, environment, aesthetics and fears could explain why more than 10,000 people have flooded the Coast Guard with comments.

A lot of those comments, Kelly said, are harebrained.

For instance, he said it is cheaper to store oil in tank farms on land than on barges or ships.

“No one in the right mind can afford to store oil on the river,” he said.

If people are worried about oil spills and accidents, they should consider that petroleum products are already moving on the river. Anchorages would make the river safer.

Fear of terrorism is misplaced because vessels and crews are subject to numerous safety regulations. They are harder to target, and if attacked the damage would be isolated.

And despite the anchor ruts on the riverbed,  Hyde Park is the largest spawning ground for adult Atlantic sturgeon.

Kelly said people need to know that a typical barge hauls 60 times more cargo than a tractor-trailer. Commercial traffic on the Hudson eliminates more than 3.1 million truck trips annually in the New York area.

“Water transport” said Kelly, “continues to be the cleanest, safest, most economical way to move goods.”

He accused opponents of putting out misinformation. A Ban the Barges Facebook page sponsored by the city of Yonkers, for instance, features a picture of a huge container ship in the Port of Hong Kong that “couldn’t fit on the river if they tried.”

The Hudson River Waterfront Alliance has asked the Coast Guard to stop the rulemaking process because the maritime interests have failed to demonstrate an actual need for more anchorages.

If the Coast Guard decides that the proposal has merit and it formally proposes the anchorages, the alliance says it should prepare an environmental impact statement and hold public hearings.

Kelly expects the Coast Guard to approve most of the proposed anchorages by the end of next year.

“My prediction is that they will evaluate the facts and move in favor of increased safety.”

The Coast Guard will analyze the comments and supporting data, said Chief Warrant Officer Allyson Conroy of the public affairs office. If officials decide to formally propose new anchorage grounds, then it will do an environmental study and hold public meetings.

“This is not a quick process,” she said. “The earliest you could see anchorages could be 2018, ballpark.”

“We’re making sure we make the best decision possible.”


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