National Geographic’s choice of Ulster County as a case study in their December supplement, “Dreaming Green,” is the result of Herculean effort and vigilance on the part of thousands of individual residents and many dozens of groups. Ulster County Executive Mike Hein listed over a dozen at his press conference announcing the event and readers of the Daily Freeman were quick to list more in the comments; as one commenter mentioned, the complete list would take at least an hour to read.
The recognition is the product of a long line of choices made over decades: Marriott Hotel at Minnewaska? Nah. Three hundred high-end houses in the Gardiner Gunks? Nah, and while we’re at it, let’s revamp our entire zoning code. Rail trail? Yes please. Utility scale solar, LED lights, electric car chargers? Let’s try it.
It all dovetails neatly with the Cuomo administration’s focus on transitioning to renewable energy. The state’s Reforming Energy Vision calls for obtaining 50 percent of our power from renewables by 2030.
Yet, it’s safe to say that serious local activists know that while NatGeo’s nod is very nice, and Cuomo’s plan a step in the right direction, there isn’t exactly time to take a victory lap—nor will there be until urgent larger problems are addressed.
“The plan released today is an improvement over the draft, but falls short of the commitment needed to protect New Yorkers from the growing dangers of climate change,” said Mark Dunlea, chair of the Green Education and Legal Fund, in a press release.
Prescient souls, notably including Jimmy Carter during his presidency, have long been pointing out the downside of fossil fuel extraction. Today, the US is far ahead of second-place China in oil consumption; our soil is laced with a 2.5 million mile network of oil and gas pipelines.
The election of a CEO whose business interests blatantly include pipelines, while sweeping into office on a pile of pro-fossil-fuel rhetoric, is not the best of news—yet battle-hardened activists aren’t pausing for breath on that note either, and they’re getting places. The fight against the Pilgrim pipeline, which would run along largely the same route as the New York State Thruway carrying volatile Bakken crude and refined products, has considerable traction.
Pipeline VP for Operations Roger Williams wrote in a Nov. 23 article in Bloomberg Businessweek that getting to the very beginning of the permitting process has taken three years and cost millions but “we don’t have one single permit yet.” In the meantime, the company has had to shut down a branch office in New York and lay off its staff. “They protect everything up there except human beings,” he wrote.
Williams’s presumption that protecting the environment does not also protect people is familiar to activists and observers everywhere; the governor of deep-red Georgia, in fact, imposed a moratorium on pipelines last May.
Pipelines are a massive concern; as of mid-2015, there had been over 3,300 leaks, ruptures, spills and explosions in the previous five years. Pipelines also, as activists point out, show commitment to continued dependence on fossil fuel extraction.
Yet pipelines are not the only problem the region faces in protecting Hudson Valley waters. As spelled out in a report from Riverkeeper entitled “The Hudson: A River at Risk, A Beautiful Hazardous Waste Site,” General Electric is attempting to declare its PCB cleanup efforts complete. The manufacture of PCBs in the US was halted in 1977 due to evidence of environmental buildup and harmful health effects.
The three trustee agencies tasked by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with assessing the results of the six-year cleanup have disagreed; the EPA is currently evaluating the issue.
Along with PCBs and pipelines (the AIM pipeline crossing the Hudson between Westchester and Rockland would flow perilously close to the Indian Point nuclear power facility, although recent developments may mean the plant’s license won’t be renewed) Riverkeeper’s report cites high voltage transmission lines and the proposal to create over 30 new anchorages for barges as issues of great concern.
In the southern end of Ulster County, where heavy industries such as Channel Master and VAW Aluminum reigned for decades, citizen activists have been struggling to piece together a toxic mess that goes far beyond the area’s publicly acknowledged sites such as the Ellenville Scrap Yard.
The impact on the streams that form the Rondout Creek is also a concern among activists, who have since established the Rondout Creek Floodplain Disease Registry to assess the possibility of cancer clusters and other lingering legacies. Local officials are reluctant to consider the possibility that the region’s economic heroes may have left one helluva mess in their wake; activists—including charismatic young grieving mom Kimberly Ann Candella, who lost a son to a rare brain tumor this year—point out that not talking about the problems won’t make them go away.
In Dutchess County, activist legislator Joel Tyner has been striving mightily to get attention focused on environmental issues.
“Countless times over the last 13 years I’ve been in office, I’ve tried to get a county law passed for testing of volatile organic chemicals when properties change hands, as in Rockland and Westchester,” he says. “And chromium 6 contamination is real right here in Dutchess. I sent email out a few months ago on this to local media. Dutchess County Water and Wastewater Authority should be proactive on this to clean it up and address it publicly.”
As water issues loom ever larger everywhere, there are myriad opportunities to get involved locally. Riverkeeper suggests letting the EPA know how you feel about PCBs. KingstonCitizens.org is sponsoring a Pilgrim Pipeline informational meeting on Saturday, January 28 at 1pm at City Hall, located at 420 Broadway in Kingston. Information on the Rondout Valley situation can be found at maximumwaters.com. And the Rosendale home-water testing organization WaterCheck is launching a water protection campaign which will begin in early 2017 with a series of town hall roundtables.
As has been observed by many, regardless of the proclivities of the incoming administration, most environmental issues are regulated at the state and local level—and every little bit of sanity that prevails benefits us all. And there are hopeful glimmerings. An October poll from the Pew Research Center found 83% of conservative Republicans favor more solar installations, and 75% favor more wind farms. The brighter minds in the private sector are well aware that the future isn’t fossil fuel — it’s green energy, which now employs five times as many people as coal. It’s green building. It’s industrial hemp, now legal in five states and being researched in seven more.
Even the heirs to the Rockefeller fortune, first amassed via Standard Oil, have come around so far that ExxonMobil has publicly whined that the foundation-running heirs are a bunch of traitors. The heirs, for their part, smile and say great-great-grandpa was no fool, just a man who wanted a better world…and that their environmentalism is exactly what he would have wanted.