How Green Should the Hudson Valley Be?

By Patrick Smith

The last time I went out shad fishing on the Hudson with Everett Nack, we put in near a village called Linlithgo and motored into the deep channels to drop monofilament nets 600 feet long. We had sunburns and a modest catch by the time we docked toward the end of the afternoon. The best of the fish and almost all of the roe would find its way to Boston seafood restaurants, and at $4 per roe, the take for Nack, a salty sixtysomething with a lined face and an outdoorsman's matter-of-fact manner, would be about $500.

That may seem pretty good for a day's work on the water, but the spring shad catch is about all that is left of commercial fishing on the Hudson. Because shad come upriver only briefly to spawn, they pick up few polychlorinated biphenyls, the industrial byproducts from General Electric Co. plants that have haunted the Hudson for more than two decades. Little else in the river can be consumed. "Back in the 1960s, there was a $40 million fishing industry on this river," Nack tells me plaintively. "Now...." His voice trails off.

We fished just south of the Rip Van Winkle Bridge, which spans the river near the city of Hudson, and the big problem that day was striped bass riding the tidal currents, which are still strong at that point. The state says you can't keep stripers because they're not safe to eat, and it can take 15 minutes of nasty work with a knife to clear a net if a school happens to run into it. But as we labored, Nack wanted to talk about the river itself--as those living along the river have been doing more or less constantly of late. Will GE at last begin dredging out the PCBs it deposited for years from plants upriver? The question divides the valley into pro- and anti-dredgers, who also tend to have differing views as to the valley's economic future.

Nack favors dredging but is by nature a skeptic, having argued with, negotiated with, and threatened to sue New York State over what he considers official neglect since the early 1970s, when the PCB problem was identified and GE banned from dumping them. He has had plenty of company over the years, but the mood here has changed this spring. In February, the federal Environmental Protection Agency signed a decree ordering GE to dredge a 40-mile stretch of river running from its upstream plant at Fort Edward south to the Troy dam, where PCB sediment is concentrated. In April, GE agreed to conduct sediment and sampling work, while the EPA set up a field office in Fort Edward.

To many people along the river, it looks something like forward movement. "This is certainly a moment when the majority of us are looking ahead with more hope than at any time during the last 20 years," says Ned Sullivan, president of Scenic Hudson, a 39-year-old organization that has acted as an umbrella for dozens of local and national groups favoring the dredging. "It's a question of `when' and `how' now, rather than `if."'

After 26 years of legal contention, the shift from "if" to "when" is extraordinary enough. GE has spent millions fighting the case brought against it, and many millions more to cultivate public opinion in the valley. And as environmentalists point out, the EPA's decision reflects the most extensive analysis, peer review, and public scrutiny of any toxic waste site ever examined. "All the evidence is that the EPA and the Bush Administration are committed to getting the job done," Sullivan, a lean 47-year-old, tells me at his office in Poughkeepsie. "That's the happiest factor on our side."

There are complications aplenty on all sides, however. One is that the fighting may not be over yet. With dredging scheduled to begin by 2005, GE is cooperating with the EPA but asserts that letting the river clean itself is the wisest course, and continues to challenge in federal court the constitutionality of part of the superfund law covering toxic-waste sites. "We still believe there are better approaches for the river than dredging," says Gary Sheffer, a GE spokesman.

Local control is another touchy issue. There are hundreds of citizen groups up and down the valley, and they all expect to be consulted on the dredging, the dumping of contaminated silt, and other issues. Roughly speaking, the valley is divided between upriver communities that oppose the project because of the prolonged mess it will create, and downriver towns that favor it as the one way to bring the river back to health. In answer to Scenic Hudson, a number of towns, farm bureaus, and business councils stand opposed. And then there is CEASE, Citizen Environmentalists Against Sludge Encapsulation, which describes itself as a grassroots group opposed to dredging. Its offices are in Hudson Falls, site of a GE plant. As CEASE sees it, the project will do more harm than good--destroying shoreline, aquatic habitat, and tourism. "Who would want to visit a river that looks like a war zone?" the group asks on its Web site. CEASE representatives did not return numerous telephone calls.

Other opponents are more forthcoming. "If I can find a way to derail this project, you bet I will," says Merrilyn Pulver, a former dairy farmer and now town supervisor in Fort Edward. "The river has made a dramatic turnaround on its own, and stirring it up will set us back rather than move us forward." The opponents say new tests might show that stripers are safe to eat, for example, and that dredging would simply disturb PCBs in the sediment and raise the levels of toxins in the fish.

Everyone in the Hudson Valley agrees that the argument over dredging is part of a larger one about development. For example, there's the plant that Montreal-based St. Lawrence Cement Group proposes for the city of Hudson and adjacent Greenport. With a capacity of 2 million metric tons a year, it would rank among the largest coal-fired facilities in the country and include a 40-story smokestack and a 1,200-acre limestone mine. There are plenty of opponents--but plenty of supporters, too. "It's the same old story," opines Jerry Leggieri, head of the New York State Trappers Assn. and another hand on Ev Nack's boat the day we went for shad. "Jobs vs. the environment."

Actually, it's more complicated than that. The company claims the plant will reduce pollution levels because it is replacing another St. Lawrence plant across the river in Catskill. But Scenic Hudson says otherwise. Citing an analysis of company documents, it reckons the plant would produce a 24% increase in air pollution and a plume of smoke 61/2 miles long. Even St. Lawrence acknowledges that the net increase in jobs will come to precisely one. A state decision on approving or rejecting the proposal is due later this year. In the meantime, drive through any community near Hudson and you'll see placards in dozens of front yards--red for those against the plant, blue for those in favor.

But this division masks a deeper and more positive process under way. The fundamental issue facing the region is the restitching of a ribbon of communities that long ago lost their common sense of identity based on a shared resource and a rich historical heritage. So while valley residents may disagree about GE and St. Lawrence, they're thinking about the valley's future collectively. And the question they're asking is not whether to go forward--no one wants to freeze the place in time--but how.

Projects such as St. Lawrence's, opponents say, cast the issue in yesterday's terms. It's not jobs vs. the environment but reindustrialization vs. a more imaginative approach to progress. The economic foundation of the valley is beauty and quality of life, green-minded residents say. They fear that traditional industries and sprawl will destroy the Hudson's unique attractions and turn it into part of the geography of nowhere.

The green vision stresses the rebirth of communities such as Beacon, based on conference centers, arts-related activities, and other such enterprises. But the advocates of "smart growth" say the point is not to oppose industry so much as choose it--and locate it--wisely. Environmental groups support a new power plant in Bethlehem because it will make use of an existing facility and will incorporate efficient technology and pollution control equipment. Another project that has wide backing is a newsprint recycling plant in Albany proposed by Besicorp-Empire Development Co. that will convert an old chemical plant.

Ev Nack, now one of the last commercial fishermen on the river, has his own ideas about smart growth. "We could have a fishing industry again worth maybe $250,000 a year once this river gets cleaned up," he tells me as we motor in with our Sunday catch. That's a modest guesstimate compared with the industry as it once was, but it's a revival of the kind that many in the Hudson Valley are looking for.

Smith, a former foreign correspondent, has lived in the Hudson Valley for several years.

Edited by Harry Maurer

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