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A weblog about the politics and affairs of the old and glorious City of Albany, New York, USA. Articles written and disseminated from Albany's beautiful and historic South End by Daniel Van Riper. If you wish to make a response, have anything to add or would like to make an empty threat, please contact me.


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September 16, 2016

Crude Oil Pumped Under The Hudson

Publicizing the Pilgrim Pipelines and alarming the military authorities by boating on the river on a late summer day

This is what you may not have heard, until very recently the Corporate Media has been obediently quiet about it and they still haven’t given it much attention. There is a proposed plan to run pipelines carrying Bakken crude oil in two places underneath the Hudson River at the Port of Albany. It’s being called the Pilgrim Pipeline, promoted by an outfit that calls itself Pilgrim Pipelines LLC and appears to be funded by the notorious Koch Brothers.

The idea behind the pipeline is to pick up and carry oil that is currently being delivered by train and by truck to the Global LLC facility at the Port, and send it 178 miles south to New Jersey to refine and then mostly export to other countries. This new oil carrier would run parallel to the oil that will continue to be loaded onto river barges at the port.

Please understand what that means. This pipeline will not reduce the quantity of oil that is being delivered by train and by truck to Albany. The pipeline will encourage even more trains and more trucks to deliver Bakken crude to Albany by increasing carrying capacity out of the port. It is estimated by Riverkeeper that in order for Global to fully use the increased carrying capacity the number of oil trains and oil trucks running oil through our Albany neighborhoods would increase by as much as six times.

The Global Facility And An Oil Barge At The Port Of Albany Near Where One Of The Two Pipes Will Run Under The Hudson River
The Global Facility And An Oil Barge At The Port Of Albany Near Where One Of The Two Pipes Will Run Under The Hudson River

Actually, Pilgrim is two pipelines running beside each other, one to carry Bakken crude oil south to the refineries at Linden, New Jersey and the other pipe to allegedly carry refined oil products back up north to Albany. Each pipe will be 20 inches in diameter and both will have a carrying capacity of 8.5 million gallons a day. The second pipeline is designed to be quickly reconfigured to carry crude oil south like the first pipe, so the potential carrying capacity of the two pipes will be 17 million gallons per day.

It’s bad enough that this pipeline is being slapped across our backyards along the Hudson Valley. But running oil underneath the river at Albany is dangerous and irresponsible, sooner or later a disaster in the making, particularly since the oil will be sour sulfurous Bakken crude and possibly at a later date low quality thick tar sands oil from Canada. And as the survivors of Lac Magantic and the neighbors on South Pearl Street in the South End know all too well, the people who manage Bakken crude don’t give a damn about the health and safety of the communities that they exploit for their personal profit.

Kayakers And A Few Canoists Prepare To Launch
Kayakers And A Few Canoists Prepare To Launch

The local Corporate Media blackout about the pipeline came to a sudden end on the second weekend of September because of a publicity generating event that happened on that Saturday. About forty kayaks and a few canoes manned by concerned citizens gathered at the boat launch in Albany, then paddled along the length of downtown to the South End. The Wife and I were part of the flotilla. At a spot just north of the port we crossed the river in a line and then returned the way we came, having made our point.

We were told by the organizers of the event to gather to launch our boats at 11:30 AM, but of course we stood around the boat launch for an hour or so as latecomers arrived, some by water. There was also a little scheduling problem, because of an earlier threat of rain the Albany Jazz Festival had been moved over here at the last minute so that at least the soundstage would be protected from a sudden deluge by the highway overpass that rises behind the boat launch. Thus all of us boaters had to park our cars in a far parking lot and carry our boats through the lot where the soundstage was already set up.

Happily, the organizers of the event kept the speeches to a minimum, indeed their egos are pretty minimal and I can’t seem to find any names on the Coalition Against Pilgrim Pipeline (CAPP) website. Things were pretty well organized with designated monitors in front and in back of the flotilla, and everybody was required to wear lifejackets and asked to keep together and follow general safety rules. Plus we were all given these little whistles to dangle from our lifejackets and use in case of emergency.

An Event Organizer Hollers Safety Instructions While The Coast Guard Heavy Stands Behind Her
An Event Organizer Hollers Safety Instructions While The Coast Guard Heavy Stands Behind Her

You’d think we were about to splash our way through an uncharted wilderness and do battle with angry sea lions. The Wife and I have paddled up and down this stretch of water more times than we can remember, zipping back and forth across the river and pretty much going anywhere we’ve wanted. It felt really strange to have someone standing there giving us rules and instructions, but that was only a small part of the strange.

You see, the organizers made sure to alert the authorities that this little event was going to happen, more out of courtesy than anything. This was not an act of civil disobedience, nothing like last year’s successful effort to blockade Shell Oil’s giant arctic drilling rig in Seattle, where thousands of “kayaktivists” put their bodies at risk of sudden death if the ship’s captain decided to plow into them. This crowd at the boat launch in Albany was not too interested in dying, indeed this bunch averaged on the more mature side, although a handful of younger people participated.

Thus I was astonished to see this guy from the Coast Guard standing on the launch and giving us more instructions. Seriously, the reaction from the authorities to this event was ridiculous to the point of being unbelievable. This gaggle of solid citizens paddling a bunch of little boats to deliver a mild protest in honor of the environment were escorted by government gunboats. We had a 65 foot Coast Guard “small tug” and we had a New York State Police Boat:

Federal And State Military Ready To Open Fire On The Paddle Boats
Federal And State Military Ready To Open Fire On
The Paddle Boats

And we had two NY Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) police on ski-dos:

NY State Environmental Conservation Police, Note Their Sidearms At The Ready
NY State Environmental Conservation Police, Note Their Sidearms At The Ready

Our tax dollars at work. Of course we were told by the Coast Guard guy that all this nonsense was “for our safety,” whatever that was supposed to mean. The fact was that both the State and Federal boats were armed war machines. Even the DEC cops, I could see when I got up close to them, were heavily armed.

At any time they could have, if they had wanted to, opened fire on us with their guns and well inside a minute we would all have become shattered kayaks and body parts floating in bloody water. This misdirected display of the awesome power of the authorities was clearly meant to intimidate us, to let us know that we were practicing our First Amendment rights only because they were allowing us to. I had half a mind to break from the flotilla and paddle across the river like I usually do just to see what would happen.

Well maybe less than half a mind. Fortunately I decided not to conduct any dangerous tests on my fragile body and perhaps cause the entire event to be aborted at gunpoint. One has to think of other people you know.

Casting Off From The Launch
Casting Off From The Launch

Finally we cast off just past high tide, so it was easy going south with the current, paddling close together along the blank wall that defines downtown Albany from the river. There was a bit of wind and the water was choppy, exacerbated by occasional boats speeding by. We were all so close together that almost every time I stopped paddling to take a picture my boat drifted into another boat and we kept playing bumper cars.

We were carefully escorted the entire way. The Coast Guard tug, to their credit, stayed out in the channel on the other side of the river shadowing us. But the State Police boat couldn’t manage to stay still, it sped back and forth to no purpose executing sharp turns and at one point went around in circles, the wake they generated traveling across the river and rocking us. Meanwhile the two DEC cops on ski-dos preceded us at a distance repeatedly zipping past each other in a little water ballet.

Map showing where the Pilgrim Pipelines cross the Hudson River between the Port of Albany and Rensselaer (click on map for larger size)
Map showing where the Pilgrim Pipelines cross the Hudson River between the Port of Albany and Rensselaer
(click on map for larger size)

So what was this all about, why were we out in our boats giving the authorities an opportunity to waste our tax dollars? The proposed pipelines run on the west side of the Hudson River from New Jersey to Albany, but at two places along the Port of Albany spurs of the pipe (laterals) cross underneath the river. One spur crosses near the north end of the port at Global LLC, the largest of the two facilities at the port that handles shipments of oil. The other spur runs under the Hudson at the south shore of Island Creek at the south end of the port, the waterway which is the mouth of the Normanskill.

The two spurs are connected in a loop on the Rensselaer side. From their facility in the port Global would pump oil into the pipes directly underneath the Hudson to the east shore, which would then cross the ecologically sensitive wetlands at the Papscanee Creek. After running south through the tank farm in Rensselaer the pipe turns sharply west and crosses the river again. The place where it lands on undeveloped land next to Island Creek is the Town of Bethlehem, then it continues south across the Vlomankill to New Jersey.

Okay, what’s the problem? The problem is that oil pipelines that run under rivers break, and that happens more often than you might think. When that happens the crude oil shoots into the river in an uncontrolled fashion and pretty much destroys the life of the river, turning it into a river of filth. Once the pouring crude is finally stopped, it takes a long time before the river is usable again and for the foreseeable future it doesn’t really recover completely. Take a look at some of these recent river oil pipeline breaks:

Enbridge Corporation Pipeline Break And Spill Into The Kalamazoo River In Michigan, 2010
Enbridge Corporation Pipeline Break And Spill Into The Kalamazoo River In Michigan, 2010

It’s important to note that in order to get the oil to flow through the pipeline it must be diluted with a mix of dangerous solvents, including benzene. Canadian tar sands oil, which spilled into the Kalamazoo River, is often 50 percent diluted with these toxics.

Exxon Pipeline Break Spill Into The Yellowstone River, 2015
Exxon Pipeline Break Spill Into The Yellowstone River, 2015

Benzene, which is really nasty, has a way of ending up in drinking water.

Oil Pipeline Break Under The Moscow River In Russia, 2015
Oil Pipeline Break Under The Moscow River In Russia, 2015

That’s just a quick sample. Many communities along the Hudson, beginning with Bethlehem which is immediately south of the proposed pipeline crossing, draw drinking water from the Hudson. When a breach eventually occurs in the pipes, these communities will have an instant crisis on their hands. In addition the tides will continually push the spilled oil upstream along the Albany waterfront and probably as far as Waterford.

I say that the pipelines under the river will eventually break because the outfit behind this thing, Pilgrim Pipeline Holdings LLC, is basically an ad hoc hit and run developer with no interest in the well-being of the communities upon which it is imposing. Despite their claims, they are only interested in installing pipes that barely if at all meet the minimum federal standards so as to generate the most profit for themselves. The notorious Koch Brothers, who are financing these pipelines, did not greatly inflate the vast wealth that they inherited by building quality infrastructure that could be relied on indefinitely.

As evidence of that vast indifference, please remember that from 2009 to 2014 raw crude Bakken frack oil was shipped across the country and into Albany without stabilizing the oil for shipment first. For some five years the neighborhoods of the South End, in particular the people who live along South Pearl Street, were forced to breath deadly hydrogen sulfide and other volatile gases. And of course they unknowingly lived with the threat of sudden death in a fireball explosion, as happened to the 47 murder victims of Lac Magantic.

Protest Against The Fracked Bakken Oil Trains At The Port Of Albany Last May
Protest Against The Fracked Bakken Oil Trains At The Port Of Albany Last May

Because of growing public outrage the federal and State governments quietly began to regulate the Bakken crude, requiring that deadly volatile gasses be removed before transport, which is what they were supposed to have done all along. But today the politicians and the government bureaucrats can’t tell anybody that they are now doing their job and enforcing safety regulations like they are supposed to because that would be an admission that they had been failing to do their job. That of course would open them up to liability suits and charges of criminal conspiracy.

Since the politicians can’t just come right out and tell the public that the deadly volatile gas transport problem is now fixed, most people don’t really know that it is. Those of us who do know also know that these scumbums betrayed us and they are likely to do so again. So pretty much no one trusts this current crop of politicians and bureaucrats, the general assumption is that they are all paid off and working for the creeps who are fracking and exporting the oil.

Fortunately the State of New York has some say over the construction of this pipeline, and shortly after this kayak trip the DEC gave the proposal what we call a “positive declaration.” This bit of State government bureaucratese is a good thing. It means that the State recognizes that the pipeline has a significant environmental impact. It is now subject to complete environmental review, which means that public hearings have to be held in all the communities the pipeline passes through and the comments made have to considered and incorporated into the review. (To read the Draft Environmental Statement, which has a complete set of detailed maps of the Pilgrim Pipelines, click here.)

The South Shore Of Island Creek Just Past The Port Of Albany, Where The Other Pipeline Will Cross The Hudson
The South Shore Of Island Creek Just Past The Port Of Albany, Where The Other Pipeline Will Cross The Hudson

You might wonder why such a thing should even be a question, of course a pipeline carrying crude oil has an environmental impact, right? That’s not how the DEC operates. Routinely, every proposal by a large corporation is quietly given permission to build or do whatever they want without any sort of environmental review unless there is a significant public outcry against the proposal. The bigger the proposal, the bigger the outcry necessary to trigger a proper review.

That’s why some call the DEC the Department of Environmental Conversation. A surprisingly large number of people, particularly older people, naively trust government and corporate officials to watch out for our interests and enforce regulations. The true situation is that when the politicians are not carefully watched they do the carrying and fetching for corporate looters and it is up to us to knock their heads and make them behave.

Paddling Past The USS Slater
Paddling Past The USS Slater

Our flotilla of kayaks proceeded along in choppy waves without incident under the watchful eyes of the US and State militaries, paddling past that run down looking floating restaurant and past the USS Slater. We were quite the spectacle. People lined up on the upper decks of a passing tour boat and on the shore, watching us solemnly as we passed. I did wave a few times but I didn’t see anyone wave back, which I thought odd. Maybe we looked scary.

We passed the Big C Pipe which juts out from under the U-Haul building parking lot, from which Washington Park Lake drains into the Hudson via the buried Beaverkill. I was happy to see that for once there were no mats of decayed poop floating out of it and no discernible sewage smell, probably because we were at high tide. At low tide the stink will knock you into the water. I made sure to point it out to my fellow kayakers.

At The Island Creek Park Fishing Deck, Terry Roben At Right Performing
At The Island Creek Park Fishing Deck, Terry Roben At Right Performing

At Island Creek Park we pulled up our boats to greet a delegation of supporters that had assembled on the fishing deck. We became a water-borne audience as singer and songwriter Terry Roben entertained us with a couple of songs. Then we had a rousing speech from activist Mr. Willie White of AVillage, who has been a very important leader in the fight for environmental justice and accountability in the South End.

Mr. Willie White Speaks To The Boaters
Mr. Willie White Speaks To The Boaters

I have to say that was kind of cool doing that, being part of an audience while sitting in my kayak in the river. We had at least 50 people and several dogs on the river, not all the boats keeping in one place during the entertainment, meeting in solidarity with assembled shorebound supporters over a vital issue. I would not mind attending some other kind of scheduled event like this, an entertainment or rally for boaters, although it would have to be short like this one was because sitting still in a boat eventually gets hard on the butt.

While we met with our landlubber supporters at Island Creek Park the assembled State and federal militaries waited for us, patiently I presume. A bit later I had a chance to ask one of the DEC cops riding a ski-do how he felt, and he was very happy to tell me that he didn’t mind one bit being out on the water on a nice day. I guess there were a lot worse things these taxpayer funded guys could have been doing besides following around a bunch of harmless kayakers.

Kayaks Cross The River Under The Watchful Eyes Of The US Military
Kayaks Cross The River Under The Watchful Eyes Of
The US Military

So we left Island Creek Park and a short paddle later we arrived at our destination, a point just north of the Port of Albany. We were told that the authorities didn’t want us to go any further, and we were also told that supposedly boat traffic in the channel had been stopped for our little action. This was not in the least bit necessary since river traffic is very light on Saturday and we had no intention of forming a blockade or interfering with any oil barges if they appeared.

Using one of the channel markers near the far shore as a guide, we more or less formed a line with our boats and paddled across the river under the watchful eyes of the Coast Guard tug which hovered nervously. It was hard to keep a straight line because now we were running sideways to the current and the waves, as I snapped pictures I quickly drifted downriver out of line. We looped around the white buoy and headed back to the Albany side of the River where we started.

A Brief Line Of Kayaks And Canoes Across The Hudson
A Brief Line Of Kayaks And Canoes Across The Hudson

And that was it. To my astonishment the kayakers in the lead immediately headed back north along the shore and everybody behind them followed. As The Wife said later, “I expected we would go across and back at least a couple of times.” I really expected a lot of crossings and maybe a little bit of symbolic carrying on, you know, have a little fun.

It seems the majority of these paddlers were getting tired out from what The Wife and I consider a short paddle. We’ve used our boats so much that we both are now able to paddle indefinitely and handle contrary currents and rough water with no problem. When we go out for a weekend jaunt we’re normally on the water for about four hours, traveling a good ten miles is no big deal.

But most of our fellow paddlers did not have the stamina or the muscles or the insensitive butts to play around in the water for a while. That’s one good reason why these social movements desperately need a lot of young people, worn out old people don’t know how to have fun. If you’re going to save the world you might as well have a good time while you’re at it.

Our Friend Grace, Who Is Organizing Opposition To The Pilgrim Pipelines In The Town Of Bethlehem (click here to contact her)
Our Friend Grace, Who Is Organizing Opposition To The Pilgrim Pipelines In The Town Of Bethlehem (click here to contact her)

Okay, maybe that wasn’t completely fair. As one of the organizers, our friend Grace put it, “That was the most fun I’ve ever had at a political action.” It was a nice warm day outdoors and the water was warm, how can I complain. I’m just saying that if we went to all that effort we should have done a little more of what we came for, that’s all.

So some of the kayakers headed back to the boat launch where we all started but a lot of us stopped at Island Creek Park for a picnic that supporters of our action had prepared for us. The tide was still high so the mud flats next to the fishing deck were short, so landing was easy without having our feet sink into the mud. This would be a great place to put a non-motorized boat launch, I hope that idea gets revived.

Of course that idea was originally scuttled because of the high levels of e. coli and “fecal coliform” (dissolved human shit) in the water around there. Most of the sewage in the water comes out of the Big C Pipe a little ways upstream. Word is that the authorities have been taking steps to deal with excess runoff from the Beaverkill storm drain, and hopefully their efforts will also deal with the sewage that it carries so that the water at Island Creek Park will become cleaner. We’ll see.

Security Guards Use Dogs To Assault Lakota Defenders Of Their Land At Standing Rock South Dakota Last Month
Security Guards Use Dogs To Assault Lakota Defenders Of Their Land At Standing Rock South Dakota Last Month

A whole series of new oil pipelines are being built right now across the country, most notably the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) being built by the Enbridge Corporation to carry fracked Bakken oil in our direction. In case you haven’t heard, which is very possible because of a Corporate Media blackout, there is an ongoing showdown between Enbridge and Lakota Indians of South Dakota who say the pipe is being illegally imposed on their traditional sacred land, and that their water supply is at grave risk. Delegations from native nations across North America and from as far away as Hawaii and even from the Amazon have joined the Lakota to help them defend their land.

Now, you might ask why pipelines weren’t built back in 2009 and 2010 when the fracked Bakken oil began to flow East in quantity, why did the frackers resort to trains and now diesel trucks (100 per hour on South Pearl Street!) to carry oil to Albany? The reason is that Enbridge and the other pipeline outfits refused to carry Bakken crude because the high hydrogen sulfide content of the oil rapidly corroded their pipes. This is the same hydrogen sulfide that for years wafted off the trains that ran through the South End and caused respiratory problems and probably a lot of other health issues that may not show up in South End citizens for years.

Today the deadly and explosive gases are removed from the Bakken crude before it is transported, a regulatory enforcement instituted quietly and without fanfare because the politicians don’t want to be held liable for having failed to regulate the frackers and failed to protect the voters in the first place. So one of the benefits to the Bakken frackers consenting (you know the politicians are working for them) to follow health and safety regulations is that now they can ship their oil by pipe, which is way cheaper than by road or rail.

So we see that DAPL in far away South Dakota has a direct bearing on Albany, part of a new network of pipelines that will greatly increase carrying capacity to the East Coast for foreign export. The frackers would not be making profits if they couldn’t ship their oil to China, which right now is buying up oil on the international market and stockpiling it, which is driving up the price. Thus the NO DAPL signs affixed to several kayaks for this event were entirely appropriate.

We Had A Picnic At Island Creek Park
We Had A Picnic At Island Creek Park

What are the chances that the pipelines will be stopped? Right now it looks pretty good. Some 27 municipalities along the route have passed resolutions against the pipelines, most notably the City of Rensselaer which will host one end of the underwater lateral spur coming from the Port of Albany. The City of Albany passed a resolution in opposition, but sadly six Common Council members pussied out and voted “present.” instead of showing concern for the health and safety of their constituents.

There is a 100 year old provision under the NY State Transportation Corporation Law that empowers Cities and villages to veto any pipelines that pass through their municipal boundaries (but not towns, there is legislation pending to fix that.) That explains why the plans don’t call for the pipelines to pass through the City of Albany, the developers know the citizens and the politicians and even the cops don’t want the oil. But I do wonder if the northern lateral spur that passes under the river and comes ashore at Global in the port for maybe a few hundred feet could be legally vetoed by the City of Albany.

And finally, as I noted earlier, the DEC grudgingly declared that the pipelines need to be subject to full environmental review, which will cause a big delay, give citizens a platform to complain and most important of all, generate publicity. One of the most important things that must be done in such cases is to find a way around the Corporate Media and force them to accurately report on the story. Because, as the promoters of Pilgrim know very well, if the public finds out exactly what they are up to and the risk they are imposing, then there is no chance in hell that they will get their pipelines built and line their pockets.

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