Embattled River: The Hudson and Modern American Environmentalism

Embattled River: The Hudson and Modern American Environmentalism

by David Schuyler


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In Embattled River, David Schuyler describes the efforts to reverse the pollution and bleak future of the Hudson River that became evident in the 1950s. Through his investigative narrative, Schuyler uncovers the critical role of this iconic American waterway in the emergence of modern environmentalism in the United States.

Writing fifty-five years after Consolidated Edison announced plans to construct a pumped storage power plant at Storm King Mountain, Schuyler recounts how a loose coalition of activists took on corporate capitalism and defended the river. Led by Scenic Hudson, later joined by groups such as Riverkeeper, Clearwater, the Hudson River Valley Greenway, and the Hudson River Valley National Heritage Area, the coalition won the first of many legal and publicity battles that would halt pollution of the river, slowly reverse the damage of years of discharge into the river, and protect hundreds of thousands of acres of undeveloped land in the river valley.

As Schuyler shows, the environmental victories on the Hudson had broad impact. In the state at the heart of the story, the immediate result was the creation in 1970 of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to monitor, investigate, and litigate cases of pollution. At the national level, the environmental ferment in the Hudson Valley that Schuyler so richly describes contributed directly to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, and the creation of the Superfund in 1980 to fund the cleanup of toxic-dumping sites.

With these legal and regulatory means, the contest between environmental advocates and corporate power has continued well into the twenty-first century. Indeed, as Embattled River shows, the past is prologue. The struggle to control the uses and maintain the ecological health of the Hudson River persists and the stories of the pioneering advocates told by Schuyler provide lessons, reminders, and inspiration for today’s activists.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781501718052
Publisher: Cornell University Press
Publication date: 05/15/2018
Pages: 280
Sales rank: 522,824
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

David Schuyler is Arthur and Katherine Shadek Professor of the Humanities and American Studies, Franklin & Marshall College. Schuyler is author of numerous books, including the award-winning Sanctified Landscape: Writers, Artists, and the Hudson River Valley, 1820–1909.

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The Battle over Storm King

On September 27, 1962, the New York Times reported that Consolidated Edison, the electrical utility that provides power to New York City and Westchester County, was planning to construct a pumped-storage power plant at Storm King Mountain, on the west bank of the Hudson River fifty-five miles north of Manhattan. In a remarkable coincidence, that same day Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, her scientific study of the consequences of pesticides, especially DDT, for animal populations. These two developments profoundly shaped modern environmentalism in the United States. Carson's book demonstrated the importance of scientific research and helped popularize the nascent environmental movement. Opponents of Con Ed's proposed plant, led by the Scenic Hudson Preservation Conference, litigated the licensing of the plant in federal court and in so doing established the foundations for environmental law.

Storm King Mountain faces Breakneck Ridge on the east bank, where another utility, Central Hudson Gas & Electric, proposed locating a second pumped-storage power plant. Together Storm King and Breakneck are the northern gateway to the Hudson Highlands, a fifteen-mile stretch where the Appalachian spine crosses the river. The Highlands constitute what is undeniably the most impressive river scenery in the eastern United States. While numerous foreign and American writers waxed poetic about the beauties of the Highlands in the nineteenth century, perhaps none were more discerning than Washington Irving and the Yale theologian Timothy Dwight. Irving, whose fertile imagination invented much of the folklore of the Hudson and environs, explained in Diedrich Knickerbocker's History of New York that the Hudson was once a vast lake, dammed at the Highlands, that extended some forty miles to the north. The mountains were "one vast prison, within whose rocky bosom the omnipotent Manetho confined the rebellious spirits who repined at his control." There, "bound in adamantine chains, or jammed in rifted pines, or crushed by ponderous rocks, they groaned for many an age." Eventually, the waters of the lake broke through the mountains and flowed south to the ocean, along the way freeing the spirits once imprisoned there and leaving the Highlands as "stupendous ruins." According to the venerable Knickerbocker, those spirits continue to dwell in the Highlands and cry out in haunting voices that reverberate through this stretch of the river.

Timothy Dwight repeated Irving's account that the Hudson was once a lake. When he visited the Highlands in 1811 he described how the river, more than a mile wide at Newburgh Bay, narrows precipitously as it passes through the mountains. "The grandeur of this scene," he wrote, "defies description." The Highlands captivated Dwight, who struggled to find a vocabulary commensurate with the grandeur of the landscape. "It is difficult to conceive of anything more solemn or more wild than the appearance of these mountains." After describing the forests whose deep brown hues he likened to universal death, and clouds at sunset that "imparted a kind of funereal aspect to every object within our horizon," Dwight concluded by observing,

There is a grandeur in the passage of this river through the Highlands, unrivaled by anything of the same nature within my knowledge. At its entrance particularly and its exit, the mountains ascend with stupendous precipices immediately from the margin of its waters, appearing as if the chasm between them had been produced by the irresistible force of this mighty current, and the intervening barrier at each place had been broken down and finally carried away into the ocean. These cliffs hang over the river, especially at its exit from the mountains, with a wild and awful sublimity, suited to the grandeur of the river itself.

Dwight, an astute chronicler of the American landscape, was in his travels essentially seeking evidence of the progress of civilization in the United States, which he measured by the neatness and industry of residents and the settling of Protestant churches in small towns and villages. But the scenery of the Highlands inspired him in ways that no other place he visited did, just as it impressed so many others.

The Hudson Highlands attracted the attention of nineteenth-century artists and writers whose work collectively sanctified the Hudson River Valley. Landscape painter Thomas Cole, for example, decried the cutting of trees and other developments that were defacing a landscape he believed all Americans should cherish. James Fenimore Cooper, whose fictional character Natty Bumppo described the view from the Catskill escarpment as embracing "all creation," also lamented the wasteful ways of his contemporaries. Nathaniel Parker Willis gave disproportionate attention to Hudson River and Catskill landscapes in American Scenery, and painter Frederic E. Church, who lived in a house overlooking the Hudson, was perhaps the first to articulate the need to call for an end to the commercial development that was ruining Niagara Falls.

Over the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries several villages grew up in the Highlands, and the state constructed a highway along the face of Storm King Mountain that opened in 1922, but to a remarkable extent the river scenery remained much as Dwight encountered it. Vincent Scully, an architectural historian at Yale University, thus described Storm King in his testimony before the Federal Power Commission (FPC): "It rises like a brown bear out of the river, a dome of living granite, swelling with animal power. It is not picturesque in the softer sense of the word, but awesome, a primitive embodiment of the energies of the earth. It makes the character of wild nature physically visible in monumental form."

Consolidated Edison's plan for a hydroelectric power plant at Storm King was an attempt to meet New York City's peak power demands. Overnight, when electricity demand was low, the utility would pump millions of gallons of river water through a forty-foot wide, two-mile-long tunnel to a storage reservoir at the top of the mountain. The reservoir, to be located just southwest of Storm King Mountain, would cover approximately 230 acres and hold 740 million cubic feet of water. During periods of peak demand the water would be released and, as it flowed through reversible turbines, generate some two million kilowatts of electricity for a city whose needs were increasing dramatically as more and more air conditioners hummed away on sultry summer days. It would be the largest pumped-storage plant in the world, and the Federal Power Commission and Con Ed anticipated it could be expanded to produce three million kilowatts. Con Ed conceded that it would take three kilowatts of energy to pump the water to the reservoir and generate two kilowatts of electricity upon its descent, but instead of seeing this as inefficient, the company presented it as a welcome use of its generating capacity overnight, when power plants were underutilized. The electricity generated by Storm King would also enhance the utility's profitability, as the cost per kilowatt would be cheaper than that produced by older, less efficient plants. At the time of the initial announcement, the project had an estimated price tag of $115 million — a figure that would steadily rise in succeeding years. Con Ed's chairman, Harland C. Forbes, described the Storm King project as "a gigantic storage battery on our system." He stated that the utility would soon submit to the Federal Power Commission an application to approve construction and added, according to the New York Times, that "no delays were expected." Con Ed filed an application for licensing to the FPC in January 1963.

Predictably, elected officials and residents of Cornwall, the village where the plant would be located, embraced it as an economic boon, which would almost double the value of real estate taxes generated and enable the village to modernize its facilities without raising taxes on residents. Joseph X. Mullin, the mayor of Newburgh, a few miles north of Cornwall, supported the project, as did the Orange County Board of Supervisors and labor unions, which welcomed the construction jobs the power plant would create. Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller strongly supported Con Ed's plan, stating that "the values of this project ... outweigh the objections which have been raised to it" and argued that the inexpensive electricity it would provide was essential to continued economic growth in metropolitan New York. The Hudson River Conservation Society and the Palisades Interstate Park Commission, the latter chaired by the governor's brother, Laurance Rockefeller, decided not to oppose the pumpedstorage plant (though the conservation society later changed its position and announced its strong opposition to Con Ed's plans, as did the Palisades Interstate Park Commission when the utility proposed relocating the powerhouse to the south side of Storm King Mountain, on park land).

The New York Times's coverage of the Storm King project did not produce an immediate outcry against the plan, but the illustration of the project in Con Ed's 1962 annual report alarmed many conservationists and lovers of the Hudson River Valley. The schematic rendering depicted a powerhouse at the base of the mountain eight hundred feet long and fifty feet high, with eight transformers atop the powerhouse and a large crane that would be used to raise and lower screens designed to minimize harm to the fish population. A high concrete wall above the powerhouse would rise almost to the level of Storm King Highway, more than two hundred feet above the river. Not included in the rendering were the transmission lines that would cross the river and further disfigure the northern gateway to the Highlands and then extend through Putnam and Westchester Counties to connect with Con Ed's electrical grid in Yonkers. Publication of this schematic caused at least some people to realize that the proposed pumped-storage plant threatened a cherished landscape and place. A small group met at folklorist and historian Carl Carmer's residence, a remarkable octagonal house in Irvington, New York (surely inspired by the quirky phrenologist Orson Squire Fowler's A Home for All) and organized as the Scenic Hudson Preservation Conference on November 8, 1963. The task they faced was formidable: the Federal Power Commission was staffed by experts in utility operations, and, then as now, there was a revolving door between industry and regulatory agencies. The FPC routinely approved plans submitted by electrical utilities, and the courts had long deferred to its expertise.

Scenic Hudson challenged Con Ed's plans before the FPC, but its attorney, Dale Doty, a former member of the commission, had little time to prepare for the hearing or to line up expert witnesses. In his brief Doty questioned whether cheap electricity better served the public interest than "preserving the beauty of one of America's great scenic and historic landscapes." At the February 25, 1963, hearing, Con Ed basically argued that the power plant would be effectively screened by landscaping and colored to blend in with the mountain. It would not, the utility insisted, impair the scenic beauty of the Highlands. Edward Marsh, the FPC's hearing officer, agreed, reporting to the commission that the project "would have relatively little adverse effect on the natural beauty of the area" — a conclusion that a New York Times editorial called erroneous. Oral arguments before the FPC took place in November 1964, and the following March the commission awarded Con Ed a license to construct the pumped-storage plant.

Even before the FPC issued its licensing decision, R. Watson Pomeroy, a state senator from Dutchess County and chair of the Joint Legislative Committee on Natural Resources, presided at two days of hearings in November 1964. Held at the Bear Mountain Inn, in the middle of the Hudson Highlands, the hearings revealed widespread opposition to Con Ed's plans. Many of the 107 speakers highlighted the scenic beauty of the Highlands and also presented scientific evidence to rebut Dr. Alfred Perlmutter's testimony, made on behalf of Con Ed before the FPC. Perlmutter had argued that the principal spawning ground for striped bass was well north of Storm King and that the proposed plant would inflict little harm on the Hudson River fisheries. Sports Illustrated writer Robert Boyle effectively refuted Perlmutter's testimony and demonstrated that the river at Storm King was the center of the spawning area for striped bass and that because the river was a tidal estuary, the eggs and larvae would be drawn through the turbines at a much higher rate than Perlmutter had claimed. The Con Ed plant, Boyle argued, would be devastating for the Hudson River fishery. In addition, Alexander Lurkis, a highly regarded engineer, argued that gas turbines presented a more cost-effective alternative to the hydroelectric plant.

The Pomeroy committee's report pointed to significant flaws in the hearing process for the Storm King project, especially in regard to the possibility of fish kills, the route of overhead transmission lines, especially their impact on Fahnestock State Park and the community of Yorktown, where the overhead lines would pass through a site proposed for a local school, and the impact of construction on the Hudson Highlands. The joint committee concluded that the project's impact "would be serious and contrary to the interests of the people of New York" and voted unanimously to oppose the project until Con Ed answered significant questions. Pomeroy also wrote to Joseph Swidler, chair of the Federal Power Commission, enclosing a copy of the joint committee's preliminary report and urging the commission to withhold authorizing construction until completion of a more thorough study of the plant's impact on the Hudson Valley. In later testimony before Congress, Pomeroy praised Leo Rothschild, who together with Carmer had organized the Scenic Hudson Preservation Conference, and condemned Con Ed as "the villain in the plot," as it had demonstrated "complete disregard for the permanent impairment of the scenic beauty and other natural resources of the area." Pomeroy added that his joint committee was considering a bill that would establish a Lower Hudson River Valley Heritage Commission, which would have responsibility for the river from the Adirondack Park to the Verrazano Narrows Bridge.

When the committee released its preliminary report in midFebruary 1965, it concluded that the Storm King plant would have "an adverse, if not disastrous" impact on the Hudson River's fisheries and on the scenic beauty of the Highlands. The report also raised troubling questions about the ability of the FPC to override state and local land-use decisions. Senator Pomeroy contacted President Lyndon B. Johnson and urged him to delay FPC approval of the project. He informed the president that the committee found that the FPC has produced "a partial record, closed to addition and correction, being used to hustle this national treasure into the hands of a private utility." Rod Vandivert, Scenic Hudson's executive director, waged a highly effective public relations campaign against Con Ed. In early September 1964, for example, a flotilla of fifty boats sailed from Cold Spring to Cornwall Landing. At the base of Storm King Mountain, three teenage boys, dressed in Continental army uniforms, planted a sign that turned Con Ed's corporate slogan on its head: "Dig You Must Not." The New York Times headline read "Waterborne Pickets Protest Hydroelectric Project That Might Mar the Beauty of the Hudson River Valley." A sub-headline adopted military language, describing the flotilla as an armada and the landing of the three uniformed boys as establishing a beachhead. Scenic Hudson was succeeding in generating favorable coverage in the press, especially the Times, and what Con Ed assumed was a local controversy that would soon die down was instead becoming regional and even national.


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Table of Contents

Illustrations, ix,
Acknowledgments, xi,
Introduction, 1,
1. The Battle over Storm King, 8,
2. Politics and the River, 27,
3. Pete Seeger and the Clearwater, 52,
4. The Fishermen and the Riverkeeper, 79,
5. The Continuing Battle against Power Plants, 103,
6. Scenic Hudson's Expanding Mission, 130,
7. Linking Landscapes and Promoting History, 159,
8. A Poisoned River, 185,
9. A River Still Worth Fighting For, 209,
Notes, 227,
Index, 255,

What People are Saying About This

Tom Lewis

"With meticulous research and a clear narrative style, David Schuyler has brought to life the decades-long battle between the industries, farms, and municipalities that used the Hudson as an open sewer and the groups of determined citizens who fought to restore the river’s diverse ecology. Embattled River is environmental history at its best."

J. Winthrop Aldrich

"David Schuyler has written a fluent, comprehensive account of the people’s unremitting fifty-year defense of a spectacular natural and cultural treasure. It has been the nonprofit and volunteer citizen organizations that are the heroes in this inspiring story, told here with a scholar’s thoroughness nicely accented with a citizen’s quiet outrage. While the battle to protect the Hudson may never be conclusively won, Embattled River provides the reader with a source of hope and an abiding gratitude to the defenders."

Jessica DuLong

""Capturing the Hudson in the midst of historic transition, David Schuyler offers a portrait of the living river that has played an unparalleled role in the advancement of our shared environmental ideals.Embattled Riveris both a sweeping tale of the conservation revolution and an intimate account of the lived experience of the people connected to this singular and majestic place.""

Adam Rome

"For more than fifty years, the Hudson River has been a key front in the fight to protect and restore our environment, and David Schuyler brings to life the river’s many defenders, from folksinger Pete Seeger to the blue-collar members of the Fishermen’s Association. More than ever, we need the kind of long-haul activism that Embattled River portrays so well."

Paul Gallay

"Embattled River captures the moment in time when the modern environmental movement found its voice on America's first river—the mighty Hudson. David Schuyler skillfully links the green movement's early achievements and its present-day strategies, reminding us that science and civic action are still our best hopes for a sustainable future."

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