NY Susquehanna & Western Railroad Responsible

For Oil Spill In Hackensack River

 

By Hugh M. Carola

 

Sometime during the night of November 25, 2005, between 2,100 and 2,500 gallons of Number 4 fuel oil leaked from a Bogota, NJ, rail yard owned by the New York Susquehanna & Western Railroad (NYSWRR). After being refueled, a locomotive leaked the oil from a faulty oil filter connection. Running into storm drains, the oil quickly overwhelmed the oil/water separator designed to catch incidental spills and poured directly into the river.

 

To make matters worse, the railroad did not report the spill until after the fact, wasting precious hours and resources, and making the situation worse by its inaction. One official report stated that the “NYSWRR had not notified anyone of the discharges.” Because the company kept quiet, no one knew where the oil was coming from.

 

First responders from the Bogota Police Department noticed a strong smell of oil and contacted the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) at 7 AM on Saturday, November 26. The NJDEP then notified the Bergen County Department of Health Services (BCDHS), who sent a HazMat team to look for the source. Within hours, NJDEP and spill response contractors from Atlantic Response, Inc. were on the scene as well as United States Coast Guard personnel. By that time, the oil slick stretched for almost three miles from River Edge to Little Ferry. Later that day, a USCG HH-65 Dolphin helicopter flew over the site, seeking the exact source of the spill. It was the Coast Guard pilot who zeroed in on the railroad yard.

 

“For many hours after the initial police report, nobody knew where the oil was coming from,” said Captain Bill Sheehan, executive director, Hackensack Riverkeeper, who was also on the scene. “At first, most people suspected the Hess terminal. I just couldn’t believe that the railroad simply sat on the information.”

The full extent of the company’s dismal response was made known at U.S. Coast Guard Sector New York’s quarterly Area Committee Meeting on January 2, 2006. At the meeting, NJDEP Region Supervisor Gary Pearson, who was in charge of the oil recovery and cleanup efforts, presented the Department’s preliminary report. According to Pearson:

  • The railroad never reported the spill to NJDEP, BCDHS, or the Coast Guard and only notified the National Response Center after being ordered to by the Coast Guard.
  • NJDEP ordered the NYSWRR to clean out the oil/water separator but the company was “reticent” to begin. In addition, the railroad initially refused to do any cleanup work on the riverbank or in the water but eventually reached an agreement with the NJDEP to hire Atlantic Response to do the work.
  • Video taken by the NJDEP at the rail yard showed puddles of oil on the ground and an apparent lack of attention by railroad personnel as another locomotive was being fueled.
  • Because the amount of fuel stored at the rail yard is below a certain threshold, the railroad is not required to have an approved cleanup plan in place. In fact, the facility operates with only the most minimal of protections.
  • While the NYSWRR has an NJDEP-issued permit for incidental discharges of oil to the Hackensack River, Pearson noted that the NJDEP now “has issues with the permit.”

 

If there can be any “good” news in a report like this, it’s that the cleanup efforts were successful. Ultimately, about 500 gallons of oil were recovered from the river with about 1,600 gallons left in the environment. Fortunately for the river (although not for the atmosphere), Number 4 fuel oil is light enough to evaporate. Favorable wind and weather conditions in the days after the spill aided the evaporation process. The only noticeable impact on wildlife was a single Mallard duck that was badly oiled and had to be euthanized.

 

“Let’s face it, there’s never a good time to have an oil spill,” said Pearson. “But generally speaking, if you have one, late November is the ‘least bad’ time of the year.”

 

Editor’s Note: Hackensack Riverkeeper is in the process of suing the NYSWRR to shut down the four unregulated garbage dumps it operates in North Bergen, NJ (see Tidelines, Fall 2005, page 1).

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