Sunday, April 10, 2011

"Tug Boat Parking Lot" at the Atlantic Basin?

Photo: NY Post

Did you hear the news, recently reported in the New York Post (here), that the City was putting out an RFP (Request For Proposal) for an operator to create a "massive parking lot for tugs" inside the Atlantic Basin on Red Hook's waterfront? For those unfamiliar with where and what the Atlantic Basin is, it's the historic "harbor" that lies behind (inland of) the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal. This body of water has been designated as the future home for PortSide New York, who's ship, the Mary A. Whalen, will be moored in the basin permanently. PortSide will also occupy part of the Pier 11 shed (currently used by Phoenix Beverages for recycling and garbage), and have the use of 600 feet of Atlantic Basin water frontage. For anyone who attended any of PortSide's excellent programs held last summer, you know what a great addition their permanent presence in the Atlantic basin will be to our neighborhood, and what a great use of this underused "blue space" this promises to be. The Brooklyn Greenway will also run along the basin, connecting more people to this unique yet underused waterfront location, right at the foot of Red Hook's residential streets.

With these proposed future uses in mind, it was of concern to me that the City and the NYCEDC, who play a large hand in the planning of our waterfront, have put out this RFP without acknowledging the fact that bringing tugboats to the Atlantic Basin - up to 15, as the NY Post article states - will also bring more pollution right into the heart of our neighborhood.

My problem with this plan mostly stems from the fact that the City and EDC have had a history of bringing new activities to our waterfront that impact our neighborhood and its residents with harmful pollution, but never seem to seriously concern themselves with meaningfully mitigating the pollution - that is until the residents discover the negative health impacts they are being subjected to and start to voice their concerns. This was certainly the case with the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal, where the visiting ships have been continuously idling while in port, spewing their dangerous fumes into our neighborhood's air for the last 6 years, when they could have been plugging in to shore power and eliminating the negative health impacts they have been needlessly imposing on our community, especially our most vulnerable - kids, the elderly, people with lung disease including asthma, minority and low-income communities, etc.

The City's indifference to the negative health impacts that their plans were having on our residents was also apparent when they facilitated the relocation of Phoenix Beverages to our neighborhood where there was some long term plan (taking over 7 years) to reduce the impact of the emissions from the 200 truck trips that Phoenix was bringing to Red Hook, but there was no acknowledgement that this new business would also be bringing more ships, more emissions, more sulfur, particulates, etc., more resultant negative health impacts to our residents, and nothing was being done to address those impacts.

As with the Cruise Terminal, neither the City nor the Port Authority who operate the terminals were required to do an Environmental Impact Study - because of current land use rules, they can basically do what they like.

This is why I have an issue with the tugs. Tugs currently use dirty diesel similar to the stuff that cruise ships and container ships burn. It's high in sulfur and creates particulates and other dangerous substances that are harmful to human health.

Don't just take my word for it.

"Pollution from the diesel-powered tugboats and other port emission sources has caused negative health effects on the surrounding population, including cancer and respiratory illnesses." (article here)

And this from a recent study - (story here)

"Tugs emit nearly a gram of soot per kilogram of fuel burned — twice as much as any other vessel type, the authors found. The high levels point to their low-quality fuel — a thick, black tar left over from crude oil after the gasoline and kerosene have been removed. Engine age and maintenance also play a role.

Tugboats have a disproportionate impact on air quality because they travel within ports, emitting potentially harmful particles near populous urban areas, according to the authors.

“Tugboats are a huge source of black carbon that may be under-reported or not reported at all in emissions inventories compiled by ports,” said Lack."

These are reasons to be concerned about the introduction of these new sources of pollution into the heart of our neighborhood where residents are already bearing the burden of pollution from other sources in the port and elsewhere.

If the City really wants to bring tugs to the Atlantic Basin, why wouldn't they use the opportunity to set an example for "green" practices, by requiring the use of ultra low sulphur fuel by the tugs that would be using this location - a location that is tucked into a dense residential population? Why couldn't the city put out an RFP for a "hybrid tug" operator using the clean green vessels like those that are being put to use in California and elsewhere (story here). Why wouldn't the city use this opportunity to give substance to some of the environmentally friendly rhetoric about "greening the ports" that emanates from the Mayor's office?

It's certainly the case that over the next 5 years or so, tugs and other vessels will have to use cleaner diesel in US coastal waters, including within our ports, due to regulations coming from the IMO (International Maritime Organization). These new rules are being implemented in response to the real negative health effects that ship pollution is having on our population - both on the coast and inland - including cancers, asthma, heart and lung disease, premature mortality and more.

However, when shipping switches to this new, cleaner fuel, it will reduce - not eliminate - these harmful emissions, so in areas where shipping and dense populations operate in close proximity, as in portside communities such as Red Hook, it's important that port and shipping practices are made as clean as possible. That's been the case in California, where the two largest ports in the country - the Ports of LA and Long Beach - abut dense populations, and as a result the operation of those ports involve the cleanest possible practices - cold ironing (the use of shore power), clean electric cranes and port machinery, a robust clean truck program and more. In California, when the agencies and representatives in government, spurred on by activism in the community, started to address the issue of port pollution in the early 2000s, they decided that where dense populations were impacted by the ports' close proximity, the response must be as robust as possible. Nearly a decade later, those ports and their surrounding populations have been reaping the benefits - in their environment and health. These strategies have the added benefit of reducing the ports' (and our country's) reliance on oil and significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

This should also be the case in Red Hook, not to mention the entire Ports of New York and New Jersey, which are the 3rd largest in the country.

In New York, as on the West Coast, shipping business is growing. Where there is more shipping, there is more pollution, so it's important that our dense portside populations are not impacted unfairly by this pollution and it's important that, going forward, the best possible practices are pursued at the ports in our city, and with the ships that visit them, so as to offset this increased impact.

That's my point about the tug boats presence in the Atlantic Basin. Why should we accept more unmitigated pollution, courtesy of the tugs - especially when we already have unresolved issues with cruise ships, container ships, trucks and more? Why shouldn't we expect that the City and the EDC sort out their previous mess before bringing more problems to resolve? Why should anything that the City brings to our neighborhood add to our residents' pollution burden?

That's just going backwards.

Yes, the Atlantic Basin should be re-activated. Yes, the activities of PortSide New York are a great example of what can be done in this unique "Blue Space". Yes, there is a place for commercial vessels, and tie ups - ferries, charter boats, etc. - and, hey, whatever happened to the plan for the Governors Island Ferry in the Atlantic Basin?

But to create a "massive tugboat parking lot"? To inject more pollution into our neighborhood's air from what is known to be a significant contributor to port pollution - i.e. tugboats - without having a plan to mitigate it? That is unacceptable.

Just as we're getting something done with cruise ship pollution with the seemingly imminent, but long fought plan to get them to "plug in" to shore power, why should our residents be asked to accept the same sort of dangerous unmitigated pollution from a different source?

It just isn't right.

PortSide New York at the Atlantic Basin


  1. Adam,

    You are right this is a huge problem! The City, the EDC and the Mayor's office have shown a callous disregard for the most basic needs of our community... to be able to breath clean air!

    Red Hook has a great deal of industrial Marine uses already including the Cruise Ship Terminal, American Stevadoring, and all of Erie Basin.

    The Atlantic Basin RFP states "NYCEDC will not consider ferry or excursion vessel operations and/or recreational marina development proposals for the Berthing Site pursuant to this RFP."

    A recreational Marina would CREATE much needed jobs and economic development through a number of necessary support services. A consistent water taxi service to the city and Governors Island would improve Red Hook commuter options and bring people into the neighborhood. It would also open the waterfront to the public! Why would they not consider these options? A recreational Marina would provide a much cleaner solution than the suggested heavy commercial uses they are mandating.

    Something wrong is going on here.

    Mark van S.

  2. I think the current NY mindset is skewed terribly against commerce. Your figures don't look at the number of trucks that are eliminated from the roads (reducing smog as well as traffic congestion) by using tugboats. One barge can carry well over 30 truckloads of sand/stone. The selfish "If I don't benefit from it, I don't want it here" attitude of much of the community "watchdogs" is thinly veiled as a fight for environmental concerns. Shame on you for trying to water down the commerce of this great port. The economic and environmental benefits of the tugboat industry (they are burning low sulfur now) far outweigh your weak arguments. Recreational marina creates low skilled jobs for transients and summer kids. Commerce provides real jobs and real salaries for professionals. You guys need to do your homework,