Local communities along the Hudson have, of course, local concerns. The town of Fishkill grapples with the question of whether and to what extent to allow development on land that was once part of the Revolutionary War Fishkill Supply Depot, residents of Ulster County try to reach accord on development plans for the right-of-way of the defunct Ulster and Delaware Railroad, while Newburgh copes with emissions into its drinking water from a newly denoted Superfund site.
But some issues get everyone’s attention, the current cause célèbre being a rule proposed recently by the US Coast Guard to create ten new anchorage locations along the Hudson River, between Yonkers and Kingston, to accommodate increased barge traffic. Barge traffic on the Hudson is not new. Crude oil from the Bakken oilfields in North Dakota is brought by rail to Albany and loaded into barges for shipment. Until now the amount of crude oil being shipped and hence the number of barges on the Hudson was limited by the amount of oil that refineries on the US east coast could handle. But in December 2015 Congress lifted a 40-year-old ban on the export of crude oil from the United States and, now that US crude oil can be sold on the world market, the volume of traffic is expected to increase exponentially. Proponents of the new anchorages claim that they’re needed to ensure safe navigation of the Hudson, which can be tricky in bad weather. Critics (which seems to include just about everyone not connected somehow with the shipping industry) say that the safety concerns are a red herring and that the rule would turn the Hudson back into the equivalent of an industrial strip mall.
The intensity of opposition to the anchorages proposal in communities up and down the river underscores how much more we now know about the natural life of the Hudson and how much we value it.
Of course, we remember the fight for Storm King Mountain, which lasted 18 years and culminated in a settlement signed in December 1980. Through this case, environmentalists gained access to federal courts and created precedence for the use of scientific evidence of ecological impacts to challenge energy projects. The case formed the basis for environmental law and environmentalism in general. In changing the law, the environmental movement was itself changed, and the whole environmental movement of today has roots in the Storm King fight.
And environmental concerns continue.
Atlantic sturgeon originating in the Hudson, driven almost to the point of extinction, are rebounding slowly, and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) tracks individual “sturgeon fatalities” for a fish that was once harvested in such numbers as to be nicknamed “Albany beef”. Overfishing of Hudson shad, referred to in a recent DEC/Cornell University report as (once) “the Hudson’s most valuable commercial fish”, led to a decline in population and prompted the closing of all Hudson shad fishing starting in 2010. And for 30 years beginning in 1947, two General Electric (GE) plants, one in Fort Edward and the other in Hudson Falls, dumped 1.3 million pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) into the Hudson in the manufacture of capacitors. Those PCBs sank to the mud on the bottom of the river and remain in the river today despite a ban on their manufacture enacted in 1977. GE recently finished dredging more than 2.5 million cubic yards of sediment from a 40-mile section of the river, but Hudson River fish still exhibit high levels of PCBs (and mercury, dioxin, and cadmium), and state health officials urge women of childbearing age and children under 15 to not eat fish caught in the Hudson.
While the Hudson River has never caught fire, until the 1970s companies and communities up and down the Hudson routinely dumped oil, chemicals, and untreated sewage into the river. Things are better now, of course, though snowmelt and heavy rains still periodically overwhelm treatment facilities and result in “combined sewer overflow” (CSO) incidents in places that use the same pipes for storm water runoff, domestic sewage, and industrial wastewater. In such incidents, wastewater treatment facilities are unable to handle the increased volume, and the untreated excess goes directly into the river. While we in general feel better about how we treat the river now, the work isn’t finished. For example, members of Riverkeeper, an environmental watchdog organization, documented bacteria levels at 74 river sites from 2006 to 2010 that exceeded federal EPA standards for safe swimming 21% of the time.
Back on shore, communities along the Hudson are working to reclaim the shoreline from the remains of the brickyards and cement factories and manufacturing plants that once lined the river. Substantial resources have been invested to create parks, marinas, and walkways that open up the waterfront to the public, and to develop housing and restaurants that promise to help revitalize their communities. These communities are not eager to have their view of and access to the river obstructed by giant oil barges parked on the river’s edge.
The Coast Guard has extended until December 6, 2016, the period for public comments regarding the proposal, and public hearings are expected in the spring of 2017. Anyone wishing to review the proposal and make comments can visit the website at regulations.gov.
It’s nice to know that the public is now both vigilant and vocal regarding such matters. The fact that the benefits of the proposal would all flow to economic interests outside the Hudson Valley helps clarify things. One wonders what would be the tenor of public debate if the economic benefit of the proposed rule were to go to the same communities that are now so loudly in opposition. And what will happen to the current united front of opposition should the proposed anchorages near affluent communities be abandoned, and only those near less affluent communities pursued? Will those affluent communities still go to bat for the whole river, once the preservation of their viewsheds is assured? The next twelve months could reveal a lot about our relationship with the Hudson and the trade-offs we’re willing to make between cherishing and exploiting it.