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Hudson Valley News

Conservation Group Praises USCG, EPA Oil-Spill Response Plan Effort

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Two agencies are now involved in updating oil-spill response plans for the Hudson River — and examining potential effects on endangered species. One conservation group is taking credit for the action after threatening a lawsuit if such plans were not put in place. One of the agencies says possible litigation had nothing to do with it.

Citing a dramatic rise of crude oil transport both on and alongside the Hudson River, a nonprofit national conservation group is lauding plans by the U.S. Coast Guard and Environmental Protection Agency to analyze how oil-spill response actions in the Hudson River and New York Bay may affect endangered wildlife. Mollie Matteson is senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity.

“So because they had demonstrated their clear intent to embark on that process, we decided that we would voluntarily drop our lawsuit contingent on them following through with that intention,” Matteson says.

Matteson’s group in February announced its intent to sue the Coast Guard and EPA if their oil-spill response and action plan, known as an area contingency plan, were not updated. Charles Rowe is a U.S. Coast Guard spokesman. He says the impending updated plan has nothing to do with any lawsuit.

“Well, our area contingency plan is updated by regulation, by Coast Guard regulation, every three years. The last time it was updated was 2011, so you do the simple math and you see that 2014 this year is the year that we are required by our own internal guidelines to do so again,” says Rowe. “We were in the process of doing this, and it takes a while to review it because it is a 500-page-plus plan, so it’s not something that’s done overnight or done lightly, we were in the process of doing this before there was any activity by the Center for Biological Diversity or any other entity.”

The Coast Guard recently penned a letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service, requesting a list of threatened and endangered species and their habitats for the coastal zone of New York, New Jersey and southern Connecticut, which are served by rail, vessel, or pipeline oil transport.

“So we go to them and ask them for their input and we religiously follow what they give us,” Rowe says.

Matteson says much of the oil being transported is Bakken shale crude, notorious for its flammability and ability to permeate soils. She says that for the Atlantic Sturgeon and shortnose sturgeon in the Hudson River, an oil spill itself would be devastating, but there are other considerations.

“The cleanup actions can also be very damaging, particularly to species like sturgeon, which depend on undisturbed river bottoms, particularly for spawning and for the growth of the young fish,” says Matteson. “So if you had dredging, that kind of thing could be very disruptive to them. Other kinds of oil-spill response activities such as use of chemical dispersants can also be very toxic to certain wildlife species such as we saw with the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf.”

That 2010 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil-drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico was devastating for wildlife, and cleanup continues. Rowe says the Coast Guard is looking at cleanup plans and their potential effects on wildlife.

“Our goal is, first of all, to prevent any spill and then, secondly, to clean it up to the maximum extent possible should it God forbid occur.”

Matteson describes other species potentially affected by an oil spill and cleanup near New York Bay, an inlet of the Atlantic at the mouth of the Hudson River.

“There are sea turtles at the mouth of the Hudson in New York Bay certain times of the year, in summer, and there are whales that go sometimes close to shore in, again, through the mouth of the river, and if we have oil, which we do, travelling by tank ship along, out of the Hudson River and out along the shore, that’s a potential threat to those species,” Matteson says. “And there’s also a couple of bird species, the piping plover and the roseate tern that nest along the shore, right again at the mouth of the bay.”

An EPA spokeswoman previously noted that the lead for developing the plan for the New York Harbor and lower Hudson is the U.S. Coast Guard. The EPA provides input.

When Matteson spoke about the intent to sue earlier this year, she alleged the Coast Guard and EPA had 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 in New York Bay, a requirement under the Endangered Species Act. At the time, the Coast Guard’s Rowe said they had. Matteson then pointed out that there is informal and formal consultation and her center’s notice of intent to sue focused on the latter, meaning such consultation meets specific requirements of the Endangered Species Act. Rowe had declined to comment on whether the Coast Guard’s consultation was formal or informal, citing litigation.

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