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Conservation Group Intends To Sue Over Oil Spill Response Plans

Allison Dunne

A national conservation organization has put the U.S. Coast Guard and Environmental Protection Agency on notice that it will follow through with a lawsuit if oil spill response plans along the Hudson River are not updated.

In light of rapidly expanding shipments of crude oil through Albany and along the Hudson River, The Center for Biological Diversity has filed a notice of intent to sue the U.S. Coast Guard and Environmental Protection Agency for allegedly failing to update their oil spill response plans, known as Area Contingency Plans. Mollie Matteson is a senior scientist with the center.

“It felt like an important to say hey, wait a minute, you can’t keep bringing in more and more crude oil, you can’t start bringing in tar sands, and the governments can’t just be watching that,” Matteson says. “They have to actually respond and be prepared in case there is a spill.”

She refers to Bakken crude oil from North Dakota and the possibility of Alberta tar sands being transported through the region if Global Companies’ proposed crude oil heating facility at the Port of Albany is approved. Though the company has not said it would be heating tar sands, Matteson points out that the lighter Bakken crude oil has not required heating.

“And if tar sands is brought down the Hudson, it could be devastating if that is spilled because it is very difficult to clean up. It sinks to the bottom if it’s spilled in water,” Matteson says. “And as we’ve seen elsewhere, when it’s spilled, it can take years and millions and millions if not billions of dollars to clean up.”

An EPA spokeswoman released a statement saying, “We will look over the intent to sue notice.” The statement also says that, quote “While EPA has the lead in developing plans for certain areas, the lead for developing the plan for the New York harbor and lower Hudson is the U.S. Coast Guard. The EPA does, of course, provide input.”

The EPA notes that the Hudson River, up to the Troy Locks and Dam, is the U.S. Coast Guard's response jurisdiction, rendering the Coast Guard the lead federal agency for the response plan referred to in the notice of intent to sue. Charles Rowe is spokesman for the U.S. Coast Guard. He declined to comment on the notice, given the pending litigation, but spoke generally of the area contingency plan.

“We update it every three years,” says Rowe. “The last time we updated it was 2011, so we are in the process and have been for a number of months in updating it for 2014.”

Asked whether the plan would take into account increased crude oil traffic along the river, Rowe replies:

“The update takes into account any changing conditions on or about the waterways. That includes the Hudson River, it includes the facilities, it includes shipping, it includes any changes to sensitive wildlife areas.”

Again, the Center for Biological Diversity’s Matteson.

“They’ve never consulted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service on the potential impact of a spill response on federally protected species in the Hudson River and out in New York Bay,” says Matteson. “And that is a requirement under the Endangered Species Act. They’ve never done it. So it’s certainly time now with all these changes in oil transportation to do it.”

Rowe says the Coast Guard has consulted with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about the sensitive areas within the so-called Area of Responsibility, and that Area Contingency Plans reflect this. Matteson points out that there is informal and formal consultation, and her center’s notice of intent to sue focuses on the latter, meaning such consultation meets specific requirements of Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act, regarding 17 species. Rowe declined to comment on whether the Coast Guard’s consultation was formal or informal, citing The Center for Biological Diversity’s litigation. Matteson mentions two species in the Hudson that could be affected by an oil spill.

“What we don’t want to do is add a crude oil spill on top of all the other challenges that species in the Hudson, species like shortnose sturgeon, Atlantic sturgeon, are already facing, and climate change certainly being one of them,” Matteson says.

Governor Andrew Cuomo at the end of February announced an inspection blitz to safeguard communities, waterways, and land from potential serious incidents involving the shipment of crude oil by rail throughout the state. He cited growing concern regarding the volatility of crude oil from the Bakken oil fields and its significantly increased shipment by rail throughout New York.  The state Department of Environmental Conservation February 28 began a multi-week inspection of Global Partners’ oil storage facility at the Port of Albany.

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