We started this project of looking at risks to the Hudson River more than a year ago and during that time have discovered some threats we thought were behind us. The PCBs are still in the river, land and air dating back to the 1940s. A proposal to expand electric transmission lines first built in the 1930s. And pipelines carrying the product of fracking – natural gas and crude oil – criss-crossing the only state in the country to have successfully banned fracking.
While we were surprised by some of the testimonials we’ve heard about these ongoing threats, we continue to be impressed by the incredible devotion invested in the local environs by dozens of incredibly committed advocates. You’ll meet some of them in these stories.
A turning point for me in our reporting on the state of the Hudson River and Valley came on a crisp fall day sitting on a porch at the University of Albany School of Public Health, looking west towards the State Capitol complex, the river a silver thread between us, marked by big oil tanks and factories. The eye could just make out the one small park squeezed into the Albany waterfront, where fishermen gather much of the year.
Despite the sunshine, Dr. David Carpenter’s description of the river and valley as “a most beautiful hazardous waste site” added a gray tinge to the morning.
For the past decade or so it seemed from public accounts that the health of the Hudson has been on an upward positive trend, thanks largely to the hard work of some of the savviest environmentalists in the nation.
But, Dr. Carpenter, the Director of the School of Public Health, has studied the health impacts of PCBs in the river, soil and air up and down the Hudson Valley. His research shows that certain cancer rates are higher here because of the insidious pollution by PCBs that goes back to the 1940s, painting the region in darker strokes.
Despite all the gains made by eliminating polluters, policing tributaries and better informing the public about how to keep the Hudson clean, the insidious leftover toxins dumped into the river forty to seventy years ago limits just how clean the river can get.
Not only did the General Electric plant at Ft. Edwards dump millions of gallons of poisonous chemicals into the river between the 1940s and 1970s, the company also spent tens of millions of dollars fighting against cleaning up the mess it had made. Finally, the EPA forced the company to remove the contamination by dredging the river bottom, I along with many others assumed this meant the job was done.
In 2009 G.E was tasked with the clean up of the river.
Last December the company announced it had completed its mission and began pulling out barges and cranes and disassembling docks, having spent six years and $2 billion in its efforts. Its website boasted “Cleanup Meeting Goals, No More Dredging Needed” and proclaimed its work on the river “one of the largest and most successful environmental cleanup projects ever undertaken in the United States.”
Unfortunately the story is not over as the cleanup was left unfinished. Thanks to an unwillingness by the EPA and the State of New York to press G.E. to expand its effort to clean up an approximately 140 acres, to stay on the job another couple of years, the company quit too soon, leaving behind … the country’s largest Superfund site.
I believe that the EPA dropped the ball even before the cleanup began. G.E. fought the cleanup despite continued testing which discovered the problem was worse than initially estimated. The agency never went back and required G.E. to expand the breadth of its cleanup.
New York State, specifically Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office, was silent when G.E. announced its pullout last December. Rather than step up and demand the company stay and finish the job, the Governor said nothing. Why? The Governor was desperately trying to woo the company’s corporate headquarters from Connecticut to Westchester County. “The only letter I’m going to write G.E.,” he said at the time, “is a love letter.”
The love between Governor Cuomo and G.E. was reciprocal. Since Cuomo’s first run at office in 2010, G.E. has delivered more than $466,000 in campaign donations to Cuomo and his affiliated groups: $170,000 to the Cuomo-controlled New York State Democratic Committee and $293,000 to the Democratic Governors Association (,a group that backed Cuomo’s gubernatorial election bids and raised money with Cuomo).
However, the relationship between the Governor and G.E. hit a rocky road in January 2016. During the governor’s State-of-the-State address, G.E. put out a press release announcing the company was moving its headquarters to Boston.
When the company began its pullout, local environmental groups went ballistic. Scenic Hudson, Riverkeeper, the NRDC, Sierra Club, Clearwater and more helped lead the charge to force G.E. to stay and finish the job, arguing that if the company spent just two more years, they would eliminate the bulk of problematic PCBs in the river. They estimated it would cost the company $300-$400 million out of its $15 billion in annual profits.
When you consider the damage done by PCBs – the poisoning of fish and wildlife, the cessation of all commercial fishing in the Hudson, the discouragement of recreation and disincentive for community investment in riverfront projects – that is a small price for the company that “brings good things to life.”
The headline of a New York Times editorial last December summed the fight up in seven words: ‘G.E., Finish the Job on the Hudson.”
Here’s where the issue stands today: Pushed hard by local environmentalists, in December 2015 the EPA agreed to accelerate its technical review of G.E.’s efforts by one year. Two of the three trustee agencies (NOAA and FWS) assigned to monitor both the cleanup and help assess the civil penalty (cash dollars) that G.E. must ultimately pay for damage done, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Fish and Wildlife Services, have said the level of contamination is “unacceptable” and asked the EPA to demand more cleanup.
And in August the third trustee, New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation, joined in, demanding the EPA “take a detailed look” at G.E.’s job and to “require additional dredging” to return the river and its’ fish to health.
Ned Sullivan, President of Scenic Hudson, shines a light of slight optimism on whatever comes next. “While the current state of the Hudson is unacceptable,” says Sullivan, “there is reason for hope. Under the EPA-mandated cleanup, G.E. has dredged an area of roughly 500 acres; removed 2.76 million cubic yards of PCBs and 310,000 pounds of contaminants. This compares to the original estimated removal of 490 acres, 2.65 cubic Yards and 150,000 pounds of contaminants. The Hudson River is better off today than it was six years ago, when the cleanup began.
“But an additional two years of dredging and cleanup of a couple of hundred acres of contaminated sediment would bring the river to a state of readiness for long term healing. We are so close: Just two more years in a thirty-year struggle for a clean Hudson.” He reminds us that it took environmentalists more than fifty years to get G.E. to this point and that if it takes another few years to vastly improve the river’s health, its advocates are not going to give up.
Despite any optimism when you step back and consider the long-term, multi-generational harm caused to the river and valley by G.E.’s blatant polluting, there is reason to be concerned, if not alarmed about the years and the fight ahead. Remember that G.E. spent upwards of $80 million dollars in the early 2000s in an effort to avoid the cleanup. It has long ago packed up its cranes and barges and sent them off to other assignments. It will not be easy to get G.E. back to the table, nor its tools back to the river.
Will Yandik, Livingston town councilman and farmer (and recent candidate for the 19th District Congressional seat) stands in a dirt lane leading through the Columbia County land his family has farmed for the past one hundred years.
Pointing skyward towards towering transmission lines that cut diagonally across his family’s farm, he acknowledges they have been here since before he was born. “I grew up under transmission lines and they’ve run through our farm for three generations,” he says. “But the idea that they need to be replaced, doubled in size, which is what’s been approved by the state, is a 20th century solution for a 21st century problem.”
The alleged problem? According to utility owners and Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Public Service Commission, there are only a few days a year where New York City is at risk of a brown-out, requiring more electricity than it currently has, mostly during the dog days of August, when everyone’s air conditioners are cranked high.
Utility companies in central and western New York propose to spend $1.2 billion stringing new lines of massive towers to deliver that needed electricity. Despite the protests of thousands of Hudson Valley residents who fought the proposal for the past two years on December 18, 2015, the PSC, gave the project at least a “next step” green light. It must now “write” a specific order for the project, which is expected sometime in 2016 with new lines being installed as early as 2019.
There is nothing small about this proposed project. The new lines will climb to one-hundred-and-thirty-feet tall and follow 22 proposed corridors. Farm fields and orchards will be bisected, scenic landscapes and tourist destinations visually marred. The debate whether to build or not to build pits green activists against powerful Albany lobbyists. Ultimately the primary point of contention was less about the aesthetics of essentially running a giant extension cord from upstate New York to NYC and more about whether or not any additional electricity was even necessary.
When in his state of the state address in January 2012, Governor Andrew Cuomo first proposed the concept of a New Energy Highway – a massive rethink of how New York State is powered – the idea sounded like a win-win for the states’ energy future. He later upped the ante by signing on to the state goal of obtaining 50 percent of its energy from what we today regard as alternative sources – wind, solar, geothermal, hydropower – by 2030.
In our reporting of this ‘Hudson, A River at Risk’ series, energy delivery systems – transmission lines, natural gas pipelines, trains, barges and pipes carrying crude oil – have emerged as one of the biggest combined threats to the environmental health of both the Hudson River and Valley. The threat of spills, leaks, explosions, fires and aesthetic disruption is constantly being weighed against the goal of moving away from a fossil fuel-based energy system.
Since his 2012 announcement, the Governor’s administration has worked to flesh out the details of how to make that transition to a cleaner energy future, with the hopes of keeping everyone from utility owners to green advocates happy, though their respective goals are radically different. If you own a power plant, you want to keep it working at the highest volume possible and spend as little as possible to expand your reach. If you’re an environmental group you want to slow old, dirty, fossil fuel-based energy providers and seek new solutions to problems created by an aging power grid; you want to see more and more wind, sun, water and conservation added into the mix of energy providers.
Building new transmission lines, this giant extension cord running across the state, is one of the delivery systems still under consideration. Estimates total the cost of the project at more than $1.2 billion, to be paid by rate-payers, and dependent on which utility wins the bid to construct it, could cut a one-hundred-fifty-mile-long path through century farms, historic estates including Frederick Church’s Olana, as many as eighty towns and suburban neighborhoods. This chain of new, one-hundred-thirty-foot-tall towers carry electricity created by aging coal burning and nuclear-fired power plants that many think should be making plans to be shut down rather than fire up.
Those in favor of the new lines argue that during peak energy days in New York City the lines would prove to be more cost efficient. Another study seemed to indicate that the additional electricity to be provided by new transmission lines was actually not necessary and the debate ratcheted higher.
Gidon Eshel, Research Professor of Environmental Physics at Bard College, wrote a peer-reviewed study of the real demand, thus need, for the project. “This is a ludicrous proposal,” he said when we met on the Bard campus. “Our studies show no additional infrastructure is necessary to meet New York City’s peak electricity needs. None.” His study shows that New York City actually has a surplus of electricity and, that conservation would go a long way to growing the surplus while new transmission lines would be “ingenuously designed to reduce efficiency.”
“If you want to stick with the ‘extension cord’ metaphor, it is a giant extension cord disconnected from anything else.”
Eshel suggests delivering electricity across the state is even more antiquated than even Will Yandik proposed: “For a state to commit itself to 19th century energy sources in the 21st century is unconscionable,” he says.
Proponents of the lines, now with the backing of the Governor’s three-person PSC board, contend the new lines are needed to reduce energy costs, relieve congestion and to plan for the future against an aging energy infrastructure.
Ironically, the biggest argument for not building new transmission lines may have also originated in Governor Cuomo’s office. In April 2014 the governor offered up his Reforming Energy Initiative (REV) with the goal of reducing the state’s carbon emissions by creating a new-age power grid that would reward consumers and utilities for conserving electricity and switching to renewable sources, including solar and wind.
Ned Sullivan, President of Scenic Hudson, one of 25 member groups of the Hudson Valley Smart Energy Coalition organized to argue against the transmission lines, states that the REV should be a guide to the future without reverting to building old-school power lines. “The transmission lines, despite overwhelming evidence they aren’t needed, would damage our environment and communities and cost consumers more. Why green light the construction of this outdated technology?”
“The specter of these giant, high-voltage transmission lines has cast a dark shadow over the Hudson Valley,” says Sullivan.
While ultimately the decision to build or not is in the Governor’s hands – he appoints the commissioners of the PSC – the move towards building the new transmission lines doesn’t seem to align with his stated goals of dramatically reducing carbon emissions since the energy created will come from old, fossil-fuel burning and nuclear power plants. But the utilities that own those power plants have employees they don’t want to lay off, have a need to make money for their communities and are campaign donors. In many cases where politicians are relied on to make futuristic energy decisions, they often choose to try and keep everyone happy with some kind of “all of the above” energy policy. (i.e. see President Obama).
Two different pipelines, two different stories. One carries natural gas, the other crude oil. One goes under the Hudson River and skirts a troubled nuclear power plant, the other hoping to parallel the New York State Thruway’s ‘right-of-way,’ essentially butting up against resident’s backyards.
There are countless unknowns about the safety and future of both projects but one thing is certain…neither helps to provide New Yorkers with gas or oil.
As we’ve come to learn in our reporting of this series about risks to the Hudson River and Valley, both pipeline projects bring with them exorbitant risks and deliver absolutely no benefits.
Let’s take the Algonquin Incremental Market Project (AIM) first, located on the east side of the Hudson River, cutting through the heart of Westchester County. The AIM pipeline, owned by Texas-based Spectra Energy, is one of three connected construction projects linking a single series of pipelines running mostly underground from New York to Boston, carrying natural gas fracked from the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania. Each of the three segments has been approved by FERC - the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission - yet no agency has stepped back and taken an environmental assessment of the entire four-state project.
One thing to understand off the top is that AIM is not a new pipeline, but an expansion project. There is already a 26-inch-pipe buried underground running from New York to Boston crossing under the Hudson; this new construction, which has been going on for more than a year with the approval of FERC and is almost complete, is adding an additional 42-inch, high-pressure pipeline side-by-side to the older, smaller version. Why? The bigger the pipe, the more gas that can be shipped.
Like any natural gas pipeline this one runs the risk of leaking or exploding. What makes the AIM project exponentially risky is that it will run just one hundred feet from critical safety infrastructure at the Indian Point Nuclear Energy Center. If the pipe carrying violate gas were to explode near the nuclear plant it could cause a full scale meltdown reaching a radius of 50 miles and impacting the lives of more than 20 million New York, New Jersey and Connecticut residents.
How often do pipelines explode? More often than you think, thanks to the boom in fracked gas that currently needs to be transported cross country. In 2010, a natural gas pipeline blew up in a residential neighborhood next to Los Angeles International Airport, killing eight. According to an oversight group that monitors pipeline safety, Spectra and 14 pipeline operators that share some of the company’s safety program management plans have reported 31 major incidents, including large explosions and leaks between 2006 and 2014. In June 2015, a Spectra pipeline exploded underneath the Arkansas River releasing 3.9 million cubic feet of gas. Despite the toxic spill, the company waited two days to inform the city’s mayor.
A sizable movement of advocates against the expanded pipeline have coalesced under the name Stop the Aim Pipeline Expansion.
They, along with advocates for promoting clean energy sources over new pipelines, have been astonished by the ease of which the project was approved and advanced. FERC, as well as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, both approved it based on what was clearly a scanty plan hatched on the back of a cocktail napkin. In Spectra’s primary testimony regarding the project’s safety it contended that in cases of emergency it would be able, from HQ in Texas, to shut off the flow of gas in the pipeline within three minutes. Even former Spectra inspectors cast high doubt on the feasibility of such a remote, long-distance shutdown. Both U.S. Senators from New York, Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, as well as a list of Congresspersons and all of the leading environmental groups have questioned the wisdom and necessity of the project and attempted to bring it to the attention of federal regulators.
Only to be ignored.
According to one of the project’s nearest neighbors and most articulate protestors, molecular biologist Courtney Williams, who grew up in the shadow of Indian Point, a natural gas explosion adjacent to Indian Point could result in a Fukushima-like meltdown and require the evacuation of New York City, 35 miles away.
We walked with Courtney and her family to the end of their block, turned left and in 200 feet stood at a giant clear-cut scar coursing downhill through the pine forest. Swivel to the right and the pipes cut under 9W and then skirt the nuclear power plant.
“With (the pipeline) four-hundred-feet from my front door and four-hundred-feet from my kids elementary school, worrying about the worst case scenario is something I do on a routine basis,” Williams told a reporter.
Directly across the river, on the west side, a proposed 180-mile-long pipeline to be built from scratch has got locals expressing disbelief and concern. The project is called the Pilgrim Pipeline, named for its parent company, a Connecticut-based start-up known as Pilgrim Pipeline Holdings.
Twin pipelines would slice through the Catskills carrying crude oil originating in the shale fields of North Dakota. The oil would travel south from Albany and then return refined gasoline north from New Jersey refineries.
The pipes would cut across five counties and thirty towns in New Jersey and six counties and twenty five towns. It would cut across major rivers and creeks including the Wallkill, Catskill, Rondout, Esopus and Moodna and more than 232 regulated streams, wetlands, and protected areas. At every mile post a service road would be cut in to the pipelines to provide access; part of the construction’s promise is that none of the traffic necessary to build the project would use the Thruway, thus turning small local roads into busy thoroughfares during construction. The ultimate goal would be to pump nearly 17 million gallons of oil each day between the two states.
Leading the effort to stop the twin pipelines is the Coalition Against Pilgrim Pipeline (CAPP).
Unlike natural gas pipelines, which are regulated by the federal government, new oil pipelines are approved almost exclusively by state governments, even when crossing state lines. Governors Christie and Cuomo have so far been silent on the Pilgrim project.
What amazes me most about the project was that the dozens of communities the pipeline would cut through were informed about it only when workers started knocking on doors in New Paltz and asking residents about land rights and access. What’s truly astonishing is that the pipeline company did not have to first go to the State of New York for it’s opinion on the project; instead it began surreptitiously trying to piece together land and access to private properties it would inevitably have to secure if the project were to go forward.
It’s funny, that’s not how my town zoning laws work here in Ulster County. If I want to build a toolshed near my neighbor’s border, I need to first go to the town’s zoning board for approval. Then, after several months of hearing, maybe I can proceed. In this instance, while the pipeline builders were saying they would build the pipe on the New York State Thruway’s ‘right of way,’ they were not-so-quietly going around and trying to buy access to the other lands they’d need to complete the project.
Turns out they had applied for construction permits in the summer of 2015 from the Thruway Authority, without any public disclosure. No notices, no meetings, no hearings, no debate.
That backdoor attempt of course backfired. It instigated a huge debate over which state agency would oversee the project’s application and construction. Pilgrim requested its overseer to be the Thruway Authority, the same agency that would be receiving “rent” for the land use. Advocates insisted the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation be the chief, judge and jury. Ultimately, it was decided both would share the oversight.
Pipeline proponents like to argue that they are “safer” than barges or bomb trains for delivering crude oil. But that’s a false argument. All pipelines leak, all the time, so the mere existence of them creates pollution. In fact the amount of oil spilled from pipelines is far greater than all other methods of oil transport combined. This proposed project would not replace the need for oil to be shipped through the Hudson Valley by barge or train, it would just add yet another risky delivery system to the mix.
Despite fast-spreading local opposition to the Pilgrim project — 30 Hudson Valley towns have already announced their dissent— it still advances on the drawing boards in Connecticut.
Jeremy Cherson, Campaign Advocacy Coordinator for Riverkeeper, is one of the leading opponents. He points out that seven of the nine biggest cities in its path, including Albany and Rensselaer, have passed resolutions opposing the project.
“I have confidence it is not going to happen,” says Cherson emphatically, hopefully not wishful thinking.
While we were fighting tooth and nail to ban hydraulic fracturing in New York State, many didn’t notice the influx of large barges traversing the river. But if you are a resident of Kingston, Newburgh, or Yonkers, it’s hard to ignore the 600 foot vessels parked along the riverfront.
The Hudson River has served as a marine highway since it’s discovery by Henry Hudson, connecting Albany, the “Port of Export”, to New York City, the economic capital of world. It has served as a corridor for transporting goods from the interior to the northeastern coast. Fur, timber, food, and tobacco were some of the first cargo to traverse the river. Today, crude oil from the Bakken Shale in North Dakota has begun making its way along the channel by barge. A new proposal to increase the number of anchorages in the Hudson suggests that more barges will follow suit, meaning more risk for the river.
There are currently seven federally designated anchorages along the Hudson. The proposal from the American Waterways Operators, the Hudson River Port Pilots Association, and the Maritime Association of the Port of NY/NJ Tug and Barge Committee asks the US Coast Guard to designate 10 different locations as anchoring grounds, supporting 43 commercial barges in total. It’s no surprise that this has become a heated debate among environmental advocates and mariners.
Commercial Marine Operators are requesting the federal recognition of these anchorages, some of which they are already utilizing, for the sake of safety and environmental protection. Because Kingston is a halfway point between New York and Albany, the operators are asking to anchor there when visibility is low, and resume the 8 hour trip to Albany during the daylight. While this may seem like a reasonable appeal, it doesn’t address the issue of what is being carried in those barges and why.
The proposal states, “Trade will increase on the Hudson River significantly over the next few years with the lifting of the ban on American Crude exports for foreign trade and federally designated anchorages are key to supporting trade.”
If safety were the true concern, a proposal to have designated emergency anchorages for severe weather would suffice.
The real issue that residents in the Hudson River Valley are concerned with is having hazardous oil being transported along a vital ecosystem for the residents of the state. This oil is not heating oil or gasoline, substances which have been carried up and down the river for decades. American Bakken Crude Oil is highly toxic, volatile, and contains combustible gases. While noise and light pollution are a problem, this is not a mere NIMBY argument. The real risk is pollution and habitat destruction.
Erik Kiviat, Executive Director of Hudsonia, has studied the ecology of the Hudson River Valley for 45 years. He questions if the anchorage proposal is a “devils in the details issue.”
“Anytime you take something big and move it from one place to another there are going to be impacts. They could be trivial, serious, or somewhere in between but there will be an effect.”
Kiviat expressed concern about potential impacts resulting from collision, wakes, leaks and spills, and risks associated with the exact location of the berths. He questions whether there is a higher risk of accidents when barges are maneuvering in and out of the proposed berths.
Another question that he and other researchers have raised is the effect of the barges wake on submerged vegetation and fish nurseries. Today, ships follow a clear channel down the middle of the Hudson, but if anchorages are established in areas such as the Kingston Flats, an important fish spawning area for the endangered Shortnose Sturgeon, the generated wake will cause more damage to these fragile habitats. An accidental spill would be devastating.
The people along the Hudson are fighting hard to not let our industrial past sneak back up to further damage the river. While the Hudson is one of the nation’s largest superfund sites, it is also an American Heritage River. We’ve seen the positive economic and environmental impacts that have come out of revitalizing communities, promoting tourism and recreation, and conservation efforts.
For small scale boaters, the anchorages are a safety concern. Barges already outnumber the amount of ships on the river 10 times over. As the proposal suggests, we can expect a higher number of barges on the river with open trade laws.
But groups and individuals are working hard to put a stop to the proposal being passed. Riverkeeper, Scenic Hudson and Clearwater are just a few of the advocates urging the Coast Guard to say no to these anchorages.
A resident commented to Riverkeeper stating, “The 31 community boat clubs of the Hudson River Boat & Yacht Club Association and our 3,000 boating families greatly appreciates Riverkeeper looking closely at the facts. These anchorages are wrong for the river, will only benefit a few, take away public access and increase safety and environmental concerns for all mariners. We would not allow oil tanks to be built on public lands and we should not allow oil to be stored on the river.”
The Hudson’s long history of environmentalism won’t allow this issue to be taken lightly. Our history shaped the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, requiring all major projects to have an environmental impact study to respond the questions that are left unanswered. In the city of Croton, a recent hearing about the anchorages allowed residents to express their concern for the river becoming a fossil fuel “highway”. However, what really stunned and angered the attendees was the lack of representation from the Coast Guard. While the Coast Guard intends to hold a hearing in the spring, they leave questions unanswered before the deadline for commenting on the proposal, December 6th. Hopefully, they will show face in the small window of time in which they can provide some answers.
EXECUTIVE PRODUCER & STORY: JON BOWERMASTER
Writer, filmmaker and adventurer focused on environmental stories and our one ocean, author of a dozen books and producer of fifteen documentary films, when not on the water Jon lives in New York’s Hudson Valley.
ATAVIST DESIGN: CHRIS RAHM
FIELD PRODUCER: CHRIS RAHM
CINEMATOGRAPHY, FILM EDITING: CHRIS RAHM & DEVIN PICKERING
AERIAL FOOTAGE: DEVIN PICKERING, ROBERT RODRIGUEZ JR.
MUSIC: DEVIN PICKERING
ADDITIONAL WRITING: LEANNE HARVEY
OUTREACH COORDINATOR: AKASHA SUTHERLAND
ASSOCIATE PRODUCER: MARGARET INNERHOFER