The year was 2005, President George W. Bush had begun his second term in office that January. The US’ 11th Circuit Court of Appeals refused – by a vote of 2-1 – to stop the euthanasia of Terri Schiavo, who had been in a vegetative state since 1990, by not ordering the reinsertion of her feeding tube. And the concept of entire websites dedicated to internet videos was born in February when YouTube first went online. By April of that year, across the Hudson Valley, it seemed the national news media was camped in our collective backyards – or perhaps more appropriately, on our
In the intervening years since, members of Scenic Hudson’s vaunted coalition have spearheaded a swath of initiatives in the name of land protection and conservation across our area. From the christening waters of the Sawmill in Yonkers, further north and the lush interior of the Hudson Highlands all the way to Washington Irving’s titular Rip Van Winkle Bridge in the foothills of the Catskill Mountain Range, the 57-year-old organization has cultivated an environmental reformation throughout New York State since those early months in 2005.
But Ali had to defeat the force of Sonny Liston in Miami Beach before he could be called the greatest – and after six years and nearly $58 million spent by a massive industrial heavyweight, Scenic Hudson was on the verge of achieving a similar historic upset – a watershed moment for modern environmentalism in the Hudson Valley.
Stop the plant
In the fall of 1998 St. Lawrence Cement (SLC), a large player in the manufacturing and distribution of cement and subsidiary of the Swiss-based Holcim company, the largest cement producer in the world currently generating north of $21 billion in annual revenue, announced plans for a 2.2 million ton coal-fired cement plant in Greenport and Hudson, NY, to the tune of $300 million. Two years later Scenic Hudson joined a coalition of environmental groups including Friends of Hudson, a group formed by concerned residents specifically for the purpose of raising awareness about the potential plant’s harmful impacts to the local environment.
Scenic Hudson president Ned Sullivan recalls the impact the David vs. Goliath battle had on the people of the Hudson River Valley and the turning point amidst contested regional debate. “Despite the volume of discourse in the area and the many misleading ads published by St. Lawrence, I believe the battle united the entire region. The Hudson Valley, Northwest Corner, and Berkshire regions all became aware of the harmful impacts by the time we were able to help spread the word. I remember the turning point when St. Lawrence brought in an expert from Harvard to an open forum meeting. One of the arguments they assumed would work in their favor was regarding the proposed 400 foot stacks on site. The gentleman from Harvard attempted to reassure the public that the prevailing winds would in fact move any air pollution north and, in six hours, everything would end up in Maine. I had formerly spent time as the Environmental Commissioner for the state of Maine so I contacted Maine’s then-governor Angus King regarding this new development meant to pacify any environmental concerns in our area and he of course was unaware of this potential threat to his state. He told me to draft a letter and we subsequently contacted New York Governor George Pataki. We then went from state to state in New England and started an editorial movement of sorts, that’s when the tide turned in our favor.”
Spurred by the storm of editorials from local publications as well as those from The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and CNN, the winds of change would soon lift the sails of the grassroots organization as St. Lawerence was dealt a fatal blow when the Pataki administration rejected its proposal application in part because it would “mar the natural beauty that has helped ignite a resurgence in the area.” Secretary of State Randy A. Daniels, whose approval was necessary for the plant to obtain permits needed from the Army Corps of Engineers, provided the final knockout punch when he ruled the project was “inconsistent with the state’s coastal management policies.”
Scenic Hudson’s fortuitous victory has led to a transformative environmental movement across the Empire State over the last 15 years. With support from Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration, who signed into law The Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act last July mandating all electricity come from carbon-free sources by 2040, Scenic Hudson has led a number of initiatives driven by community advocacy designed to “preserve land and farms and creates parks that connect people with the inspirational power of the Hudson River, while fighting threats to the river and natural resources that are the foundation of the valley’s prosperity.”
Unleashing the Hudson’s power in defense of its inland neighbors
Though the 2005 victory over SLC may have ignited New York’s 21st century environmental movement, it did not come without precedent. Scenic Hudson was established in 1963 when six citizens banded together in order to combat Con Edison and its industrial plan to blast the face off of Storm King Mountain just south of Cornwall-on-Hudson. The energy giant planned to destroy the structure of the historic mountain in order to install a pump facility that would funnel water into a reservoir located in the Hudson Highlands, putting ecosystems in danger of destructive change.
In what has come to be known as the Scenic Hudson Decision, the organization’s six founders were successful in halting ConEd’s industrial designs and established citizens’ legal standing to defend the environment in a court of law even if they had no economic recourse. The Storm King initiative also proved to be the first time scientific data was considered in order to determine the overall impact of such a project.
For the past five decades, Scenic Hudson and its team of environmental advocates have spread their successes on the Hudson River across the area and have been responsible for preserving more than 48,000 acres of at-risk land across the region, including more than 18,000 acres on over 125 family farms. “We have a transformative impact on the ground,” says Mr. Sullivan of Scenic Hudson’s many community branches that reach inland of the river. “We are involved with purchasing development rights to farms and leaving the ownership rights in the hands of the farmer. We utilize a practiced system of criteria based on climate change when purchasing property, asking ourselves what we can do to preserve the ecological systems that are in place. The farmers generally receive a cash payment that they can do as they please with, this helps bring resources to bear with both state and federal grants that are woven together to hold easements. We work with a variety of local environmental institutions including the Salisbury Land Trust and the Columbia and Dutchess Land Conservancies.”
Scenic Hudson’s robust list of land-protection achievements grows with each year, further establishing its roots in the area’s broad environmental movement. In the fall of 2019, Scenic Hudson acquired a 508-acre post-industrial parcel of land located on the City of Kingston’s Hudson riverfront. The site was previously part of a massive housing development project that has languished for the past 12 years. The preservation of the site will lead to a project that will eventually link to New York State’s Empire State Trail and Kingston’s Greenline trail system currently being developed to connect disparate neighborhoods in the city.
In the town of East Fishkill, Scenic Hudson dedicated its efforts toward removing 130 tons of debris and repaired roads in order to conserve Lake Walton, making it possible for Dutchess County to plan the creation of its first universally accessible park.
The organization is also responsible for protecting nearly 1.5 miles of the Stockport Creek in Columbia County. The creek has long been an important tributary of the Hudson River itself. Scenic Hudson’s acquisition of this 117-acre stretch will help monitor pollution along the tributary, which will prove critical for maintaining water quality and sustaining fish species including sturgeon and shad.
For the last seven years, Scenic Hudson has also safeguarded 27 riverfront acres in Ulster County that sit between its Esopus Meadows Preserve. The 2013 acquisition has since protected the sublime vistas that draw visitors to Mills-Norrie State Park and other outdoor destinations, and will allow the organization to double the size of its existing preserve.
Every land acquisition comes with a carefully ordained environmental purpose according to president Ned Sullivan. “Every transaction catalyzes positive development in the community, giving people a stake in the river and connects it to the world around them.”
Gearing up for round two
The shocking defeat of the SLC plant a decade and a half ago has affirmed Scenic Hudson’s status as the state’s number one environmental watchdog. With its metamorphic impact on the Hudson Valley’s many ecosystems and role in New York’s modern environmental push, it should come as no surprise that plans for a new natural gas plant in Newburgh have already landed firmly in Scenic Hudson’s crosshairs.
Hayley Carlock, an attorney and Scenic Hudson’s director of environmental advocacy, who posseses a familiar fervor to stunt the presence of corporate industrialization in the Hudson Valley, says, “Danskammer Energy, developer of the proposed Newburgh plant that sits in the shadow of Storm King Mountain, is deceptively attempting re-industrialization at a time when the valley is decidedly moving away from those purposes.”
After Superstorm Sandy, the plant sustained significant structural damage causing the previous owner to declare bankruptcy in 2012. Danskammer was slated to be sold for scrap until 2014 when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) created a financial incentive for industrial locations to be sited by corporations in the lower Hudson Valley. This effectively placed a target on the Danskammer plant, enticing developers to swoop in and bring the plant back online in hopes of a financial windfall.
“Developers will get paid even if the plant doesn’t run,” says Ms. Carlock, “in the form of capacity payments for millions of dollars just for making the plant viable.” The new incentives quickly lead to Danskammer reopening though as it stands currently, the old plant runs seldomly.
In 2019, a new developer, backed by international companies, entered the fray and purchased the plant for the purpose of building a new natural gas-fired plant to the south. The proposed plan for the new Danskammer plant will cost approximately $500 million to build the 535-megawatt facility along the shores of the Hudson, and will likely be the last fossil fuel plant to be built in New York. “That is not the legacy we want to leave here,” says Carlock. “We have already intervened to make sure there are no more coal-fired facilities here, we should be investing in clean energy and infrastructure to preserve the health of future generations.”
Undoubtedly, the proposed new plant would contribute to ground level ozone (or smog), potentially causing respiratory problems in an area of the Hudson Valley that has already been graded a C for air quality. Members of the Danskammer initiative and proponents of the new plant claim its operation will not be nearly as ‘dirty’ as the former 68-year-old plant. However, the new plant will surely run much more often, meaning air pollution will increase 25-40 times more than the previous plant with greenhouse gas emissions also rising 40 times more annually.
Ned Sullivan feels a similar looming concern that propelled him into action in 2005, “I have little doubt that this new plant will lock us into many more years of pollution in the Hudson Valley. Why would we allow a fracked-gas plant to run in a state where fracking is illegal? Renewables are growing worldwide as well as right here in the Hudson Valley, that is where the future of clean energy lies.”
As Sullivan and his coalition of activists at Scenic Hudson lace up their gloves in preparation for another battle against a corporate titan, they will enter the ring with more than a plan to simply stop the plant from being built. “We certainly want to stop Danskammer from building its proposed new plant, but we are also strong supporters of generating some other job-creating activity.” A plant in the city of Kingston with some ancillary battery storage might provide an alternative solution. Large ancillary battery storage facilities have the capacity to take energy off the grid and store it when it is not needed, and subsequently discharge energy back into the grid when required.
Stand-alone battery storage facilities like these might provide the Hudson Valley with a renewable energy resource that will also generate much needed job growth. “Environmental threats like these are a big motivator. Ultimately our goal is to engage people first where they find fun and pleasure,” says Ned. “Whether through social media or other forms of grassroots campaigning, it’s about showing people the wonderful places this beautiful area presents visitors. Getting the word out, getting people focused on us as a resource for the fun things to do in the Hudson Valley, and getting people involved that way will surely lead to the realization that we must preserve what we love.”
To learn more about Scenic Hudson and their work, or to get involved, please visit www.scenichudson.org.