For the past thirty years I’ve lived just a few miles from the Hudson River. I cross it almost daily, get on it as often as possible. A traffic corridor linking Albany with downstate and New York City by barge, it is also a remarkable wilderness, home to many varieties of birds and marshes accessible only by kayak. Once a punchline to define polluted waterways, overfished and polluted by non-caring industries going back a century, today it is remarked upon around the world for getting better, cleaner.
Long before I’d seen the Hudson I was somehow attracted to it. As a college student in the Midwest I inexplicably had a poster on my dorm room wall of a painting by Albert Bierstadt, one of the great Hudson River School painters. Though Bierstadt would make his fame with his paintings of the great American West, he started like so many talented painters, in the Hudson Valley. The view he shared with me was of the Hudson River looking towards Hook Mountain at sunset.
Luck or good fortune found me settling into a similar landscape. And though I’ve been able to spend much of my life traveling to the remote corners of the world, I am always happy to come home. Along my various routes I’ve looked at and studied the environmental impacts on rivers, lakes and the ocean around the globe. I’ve long wanted to take a deeper look at the Hudson, particularly the environmental risks it faces today. This collection of writings, video clips, photographs and more is that look.
Specifically we wanted to take a close-up look at three distinct risks: The so-called “bomb trains” carrying a highly explosive gas and oil mix along the riverside from the shale fields of North Dakota to Albany and to Philadelphia; the 50-year-old nuclear power plant at Indian Point, which continues to operate even as its infrastructure ages; and the rebuilding of the Tappan Zee Bridge, currently the largest construction project in North American with a potential to create serious environmental harm if not closely monitored.
John Lipscomb, the Hudson Riverkeeper’s boat patrolman, likes to point out the Hudson is hardly a pristine body of water. It has suffered physically since becoming the main highway of commerce since soon after Henry Hudson first visited, in 1609.
Native Americans had used it as a trading route long before Europeans arrived; so did pirates who lived at its mouth. In the 400 years since, industries have boomed and busted up and down its tidal length, including whaling, iron mining, brick and cement making and fishing for whales and shad.
But it was the opening of railroads on either side of the river that truly expanded the river’s commercial reach, opening new doors for exploration, industry and tourism.
In fact the very first railroad incorporated in the U.S., in 1826, was the Mohawk and Hudson, which ran from Albany to Schenectady. When we see these “bomb trains” and Amtrak cars coursing down either side of the river they are continuing a long tradition.
During the past year we traveled up and down the river, from Troy to Manhattan and back. That the river is demonstrably cleaner and accessed by more and more people each year is largely due to the dedication of a handful of environmental groups who have been fighting for the river for the past thirty years. Thankfully they are still out there, watching over the muted waterway because despite any number of success stories, the Hudson remains a river at risk.
The sight of long trains made up of one hundred-plus black, cylindrical cars, rolling slowly through cities and towns across North America – often within yards of office buildings, hospitals and schools -- has become commonplace.
Few who see them know that these sinister-looking cars carry a highly flammable mixture of gas and oil from the shale fields of North Dakota. At thirty thousand gallons per car, each of these trains carries more than three million gallons of highly flammable and toxic fuel, earning them the nickname “bomb trains.”
I see them on a daily basis in the Hudson Valley, whether stacked up four-deep alongside the thruway in Albany, crossing an aging trestle bridge in Kingston, rolling behind strip malls and health care facilities in Ulster, paralleling the very edge of the Hudson River. Several of the long, ominous-looking trains snake south from Albany to refineries in Philadelphia every day, crossing New Jersey, paralleling Manhattan.
And this oil/gas combo is not just moving by rail: Last year three billion gallons of crude that arrived in Albany by train from the North Dakota were offloaded to tanks and then barges to be shipped downriver. The very first tanker carrying crude oil ran aground, a dozen miles south of the Port of Albany; thankfully its interior hull was not breached.
The boom in this train traffic – in 2009 there were 9,000 of the black rail cars, today there are more than 500,000 – correlates directly with the boom in fracking of gas and oil across the U.S. Record amounts of both are being pulled out of the ground in the Dakotas, Colorado, Texas and thirty other states and needs to be delivered to refineries. Pipelines take time to build and often run into community resistance; since there are railways already leading in every direction the oil and gas industry has taken them over. In 2010, 55,000 barrels of crude oil were shipped by rail each day in the U.S.; today it is more than 1 million barrels … per day.
During the same period there’s been another corollary, a boom in horrific railway accidents resulting in derailments, spills, fires and explosions. Sometimes they occur near fragile wetlands (Aliceville, AL, November 2013); sometimes in neighborhoods where hundreds must be evacuated (Casselton, ND, December 2013); and sometimes in the middle of a town (Lac-Megantic, Quebec, July 2013, where 47 people were killed in a midnight derailment).
Since February 14 a half-dozen of these “bomb trains” have derailed and spilled or exploded, in Illinois, Ontario and West Virginia, leaving widespread destruction and environmental damage in their wake. A half-mile on either side of the tracks is considered within the “blast zone” when these fuel-laden trains crash. Increasingly they are mentioned as potential terrorist weapons.
Efforts to regulate this explosion of shipping by rail has proven difficult. It seems that no one wants to accept the responsibility (or costs) of improving the safety of the cars, the tracks, the infrastructure they run over or the volatile fuel. On May 2 the Department of Transportation issued some new rules and regulations regarding the speed trains can travel at through communities, required updated and safer rail cars and more, but most of the proposed changes don’t take effect for many years. Environmental advocates are not hopeful for much quick change given the powerful lobbying efforts of the gas, oil and rail industries.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has previously said there was little the state could do to slow the traffic, but even he is concerned about the possibility of accident; last month the governor’s office issued a complaint after investigating train cars coming into Albany and citing 84 “defects.”
Opposition to new safety rules comes despite that the D.O.T. estimates that if this pace of shipping continues there will be fifteen major accidents every year and one of the enormity of Lac-Megantic (47 people killed) every two years.
“Even if new measures are adopted,” says Roger Downs, an Albany-based attorney with the Sierra Club’s Atlantic Chapter, “it still feels like a half-baked plan to address a wholly inappropriate way to move oil.”
When a 200-foot high fireball chased by billowing smoke filled the sky above the Indian Point nuclear power plant on a Saturday afternoon in early May 2015 it was an auspicious reminder of a greater tragedy that may one day come.
As emergency vehicles rushed to the site from all directions to address what turned out be a transformer fire, loudspeakers near the plant could be heard blasting: “This is not a drill, Please be aware, This is not a drill.” The plant’s neighbors – twenty million live within a fifty-mile radius – were scarily reminded of the reality of having a nuclear power plant in your backyard. The result of this fire was thousands of gallons of oil and fire-fighting foam seeping into the Hudson River. The result of an accident that exposes spent radioactive fuel rods or a fire in one of the nuclear reactors is so potentially horrific that the residents within the most-at-risk zone simply don’t allow themselves to imagine it.
If – or when – there is a more serious incident the “This is a not a drill” message will take on an entirely different meaning. Imagine the confusion and hysteria of those twenty million people all trying to flee the nuclear blast zone simultaneously. (The Nuclear Regulatory Commission designates the area within ten miles of the facility as most-at-risk, but an airborne nuclear plume could reach tens of millions.)
The day after the fire the NRC designated the incident an “unusual event,” the lowest of four categories the agency gives to potential safety or security threats at nuclear plants. Reactor No. 3 was shut down for two weeks.
The Indian Point Energy Center in Buchanan, NY, sits just thirty miles from Times Square. One of its three aging reactors has been offline since 1974; the two others are in need of updating. A timeline shows a long history of leaks, small spills and fires going back to its opening in 1962. Many, including Governor Andrew Cuomo, would like to see the plant shut down permanently, a decision that could be made later this year. Its owner, Entergy, wants existing licenses for the two reactors extended for another twenty years.
The lone argument for keeping the plant open seems to be that we, maybe particularly New York City, need the energy it produces (about 12.5 percent of energy needs for downstate New York.) Critics contend the energy Indian Point provides could be made up from other sources, ranging from alternatives and conservation to natural gas and hydropower.
Arguments for its closing include the fact the plant does not meet more than one hundred federal fire safety standards, the fact that the NRC rates Indian Point the most earthquake vulnerable nuclear facility in the U.S., that 1,500 tons of radioactive waste is stored at the facility with no solid containment structure in place and that radioactive contaminants, including Strontium-90, Celsium-137 and Tritium have been leaking from spent fuel pools into the groundwater and Hudson River for decades.
While we shot video interviews on a warm summer morning in the middle of the Hudson, the five of us on the boat were amazed by how little protection surrounds the plant. We sat a couple hundred yards off the plant as tourist boats and barges motored past. The only thing separating us and the plant were a couple buoys warning to stay away. From the river, no patrol boat, no fences protect the nuclear plant.
By comparison, later the same day we attempted to motor around the construction zone beneath the Tappan Zee Bridge and were chased away by police boats with lights and sirens. The irony that the bridge project is better guarded than the nuclear plant was not lost on us.
When the original Tappan Zee Bridge was built in the early 1950s, by an ambitious governor named Thomas E. Dewey, it was the largest bridge ever built, partially because it spanned the second widest spot on the Hudson River.
Why build where the river is at its widest? Dewey wanted the toll money in order to help finance his brand new New York State Thruway system. If the bridge had been built just two-tenths of a mile further south it would have fallen within 25 miles of the Statue of Liberty thus under the jurisdiction and bank account of the Port Authority, which had a monopoly over all of New York’s bridges and tunnels.
Sixty-five years later, the original three-mile long bridge – which cost $81 million and was postponed until after the Korean War due to a national lack of steel – is being replaced. The prime motivator is Governor Andrew Cuomo, who intends to spend more than $4 billion on not one, but two new, side-by-side bridges. Financing for the project, currently the largest construction job in North America, is still not quite complete and the governor is being very secretive about his plans to pay for it. He attempted to get a low-interest loan under the Clean Water Act for $500 million, but the EPA shut him down. He’s still got a couple years to find the money.
The new construction is a massive undertaking. More than 400 workers commute each day to 130 floating cranes, barges and tugboats to work on what will ultimately be the world’s widest bridge. Plants from Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Virginia are shipping more than 100,000 tons of steel to Nyack; welded plate girders 60 to 120 feet long are being constructed north of the site and shipped by barge downriver. The world’s largest floating crane, with its own name – the Left Coast Lifter – has been on-site since last October; its first lift was a 600-ton piling cap. Eventually it will be lifting 1,000-ton sections.
Plans are for the first new bridge to open in 2016, then the original will be torn down. The second span is expected to be finished sometime in 2018.
It should go without saying that such a massive construction project is impacting the local environment. It’s been up to the Hudson Riverkeeper and other monitors to make sure they continue to have access to the project’s decision-makers and that agreements to protect the environment made before construction began are lived up to.
Environmental oncerns? Noise, for a starter. Pilings several hundred feet long are being pounded into the river bottom all day long – bang, bang, bang, bang – impacting residents of both Nyack and Tarrytown as well as the wildlife that calls the river home. Dredging is a concern, so is protecting the river floor. Wildlife habitats – from sturgeon and oysters to peregrine falcons – are being altered, as is the nearby Piermont Marsh.
I’m most curious about how they plan to take down the 197 piers, 18,400 timber pilings and all that lead-based paint and asbestos that make up the original bridge without polluting the Hudson in the process. The intent is to recycle as much of the steel as possible, which means cutting it, disassembling it, loading it into barges and shipping it.
There were options to building the two new spans. Repairing the existing bridge was one, digging a tunnel was another (which would have also provided more options for mass transit). But from Dewey to Cuomo, there’s one thing all Governors love: Cutting ribbons on massive construction projects built during their tenure.
Since Governor Cuomo has indicated he’ll run for a third term in 2018, even if the new Tappan Zee project runs slightly behind, chances are he’ll still be the ribbon-cutter-in-chief whenever it opens.
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
CINEMATOGRAPHY, FILM EDITING: CHRIS RAHM & DEVIN PICKERING
AERIAL FOOTAGE: DEVIN PICKERING, ROBERT RODRIGUEZ JR.
MUSIC: JOE MAGGIO & IKE SHAW, DEVIN PICKERING
ADDITIONAL FOOTAGE: ROGER RICHARDS, GLEB MIKHALEV
RESEARCH & PRODUCTION ASSISTANCE: GLEB MIKHALEV