Mariners ‘stuck in the middle’ in Hudson River anchorage dispute

Last June, the U.S. Coast Guard issued a public call for comments on a proposal to designate new Hudson River anchorages for commercial vessels. Due to the unprecedented response, mostly from opponents of the plan, the service extended the deadline by three months so that more people could respond.

When the comment period closed in December, the final tally reflected the heat of the issue and the emotions of stakeholders stretching the length of the river.

“We wanted to hear from residents, mariners and businesses,” said Lt. Karen L. Kutkiewicz, public affairs officer for the Coast Guard’s 1st District. “We wanted transparency but didn’t expect 10,600 comments, exponentially more than for any USCG rulemaking ever anywhere in the country.”

The river’s dueling federal identities — it was named a National Heritage Area in 1996 and more recently was designated Marine Highway M-87 — may partly explain why so many more people decided to weigh in now compared to 1999, when an anchorage in Hyde Park, N.Y., was federally designated with no comments submitted. Social media and Bakken crude oil moving on the river also may be accelerants for the controversy.

According to Capt. John Lipscomb, vice president for advocacy for the environmental group Riverkeeper, the unprecedented number of comments represents “a monumental event, a historic measure of the public’s newfound emotional connection with America’s founding river, an evolution of the environmental movement for the next generation.”

Lipscomb said that Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the New York Department of Environmental Conservation have noticed the outpouring of disapproval and are treating renewal applications by Albany terminal operators Global Companies and Buckeye Partners as new applications, requiring a more comprehensive environmental review process. “So it’s not a given that crude oil will continue to be barged south,” Lipscomb said.

Some mariners on the Hudson connect disapproval of the plan to a snowballing of misinformation. Capt. Ian Corcoran, a Hudson River pilot and a 1998 graduate of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, cites misconceptions about the anchorages and a lack of understanding about river commerce and mariners in general.

“People know so little about this industry,” he said. “Let’s face it, these skilled boatmen and pilots are the first line of environmental defense.”

Corcoran said the proposed anchorages are simply “lines on a nautical chart. No infrastructure, construction, docks, berths or moorings. We should have asked the Coast Guard to designate these ‘customary’ anchorages long ago, since vessels have used them since the first modern ships traveled to port of Albany in the 1930s.”

The Coast Guard said it is considering the new anchorages after receiving requests from the Tug & Barge Committee of the Maritime Association of the Port of New York/New Jersey, the Hudson River Pilots Association and the American Waterways Operators. The requests were triggered by a marine safety information bulletin issued by the Coast Guard in November 2015 that warned commercial vessels to anchor only in federally designated areas, with violators subject to fines of up to $40,000 except in cases of dire emergency. The warning stemmed from a complaint by a shore resident bothered by generator noise and Coast Guard-required lighting of an anchored vessel.

Benjamin Moll, a 2011 Maine Maritime Academy graduate, feels strongly about the need for the anchorages. “In winter, the ice buoys don’t show up reliably on radar and are dubiously lit,” he said. “Temperature fluctuations create fog. When there are compelling safety reasons to anchor in a bailout anchorage, we will. Mariners feel stuck in the middle; we want to do our jobs safely and go home.”

As to the fear that the new designations would lead to multiple crude-oil barges occupying all the anchorages as a means of price speculation, Moll said, “units of less than 150,000 barrels do not provide the economies of scale. Besides, chartering companies would be spending money (and) not getting any return if equipment is anchored, and gambling that prices increase.”

Corcoran said confusion exists in the Coast Guard’s advanced notice of proposed rulemaking about definitions of long-term and short-term anchorages. He suggested defining “long-term” as up to 48 hours. “As a pilot, if I saw a vessel occupying a ‘safe haven’ for a week, I’d be concerned and make radio contact,” he said.

Kutkiewicz said the Coast Guard wanted to educate the public about the anchorages, but the frenzy of comments might hamper constructive problem-solving among stakeholders.

By Professional Mariner Staff