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The Story — and Fate — of the Hudson River

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For the past century, pollution has been an outsized part of the Hudson River’s history. Proposed NYC storm barriers, oil-barge anchorages, and other new challenges come with ecological costs. Can activists and environmentally conscious regulators restore the legendary river to its former glory?

It would happen long after the Lenape navigated what it called Muhheakunnuk as a vital source of food and transportation and Henry Hudson came along on The Half Moon to explore it. Long after General George Washington and his Continental Army clashed with the British on its southern banks — even after an eccentric but prolific arms dealer named Bannerman used it to store his postwar arsenal at the turn of the 20th century — the Hudson River would earn a reputation and identity that arguably eclipsed the full body of its otherwise rich history.

The majestic Hudson — to many, America’s most beautiful waterway — would become known as a dangerously neglected and contaminated dumping ground for multiple generations of rapacious industrialists.

This is the story of a mighty river, its desecration, and the committed cast of characters fighting to restore it.

North Tarrytown’s Maxwell Briscoe Motor Car factory, circa 1905; it would become a Chevrolet factory by 1915. Photo courtesy of The Historical Society Serving Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown

Industry’s steep toll: a historical thumbnail

Ever since industrialization took hold on the Hudson’s banks, the river’s health has suffered tremendously. Sewage and chemicals have pervaded the waterway, disrupting ecosystems and taking a lethal toll on species like the bay anchovy, blueback herring, and white perch.

 By the 1960s, the river was in rough shape — an “industrial sewer,” says Greg Williams, who leads the Beacon-based environmental advocacy organization Hudson River Sloop Clearwater.

Paul Gallay, president of the Ossining-based nonprofit Riverkeeper, recalls a tragic status quo: “Pollution became the norm, not the exception,” he says. “Everybody looked the other way for decades, while the fish began to stink like oil, while people wouldn’t let their children play near the river, while boats would be befouled by residue or oil.”

 As a result, many of the Hudson Valley’s current residents have a distant relationship with the river. We admire it from afar; we drive over it; we boat across it. But we usually don’t swim in it, and we’re advised not to catch, clean, and eat the fish that call it home. The apprehension is deserved: In 1984, the Environmental Protection Agency designated a long stretch of the river a Superfund site — meaning, in the EPA’s own words, “some of the nation’s most contaminated land.”

For roughly half a century, the Anaconda Wire and Cable Company in Hastings-on-Hudson spewed waste into the Hudson (the building was originally occupied by the National Conduit & Cable Co.). Photo courtesy of Collection of the Westchester County Historical Society

Requiem for an assembly line

The defunct General Motors plant in Sleepy Hollow (formerly North Tarrytown) has been an industrial wasteland for quite some time: Long stretches of cement, sparse vegetation, and rusting fences evoke images of a corporate graveyard. But for most of the 20th century, the automobile-assembly center was bustling. “It provided jobs but gave an interesting look to the riverfront, which was… not necessarily pleasing,” says Sara Mascia, curator of the Historical Society of Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown, diplomatically. The factory opened at the very end of the 19th century, Mascia explains, and manufactured steam-powered cars. In 1915, Chevrolet took over, and in 1918 General Motors acquired Chevrolet.

The location produced an estimated 12 million vehicles during its lifespan, churning out Pontiacs and Oldsmobiles, among other nameplates. It also proved to be a major menace to the health of the Hudson, serving as a microcosm of what was happening all along the waterway: industry muscling out ecology.

By 1971, the 90-acre plant was using about one million gallons of water each day — water that was released back into the Hudson laced with chemicals. “General Motors was famous for such sloppy practices,” Gallay of Riverkeeper says. “They let everything drain untreated into the river.”

Ultimately, the massive General Motors plant would essentially engulf the Stanford White-designed Maxwell Briscoe factory. Photo courtesy of The Historical Society Serving Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown

In a New York Times article published that same year, an activist delivered a now-famous quip: “You can tell what color cars they are painting on a given day by what color the river is.” Just one year prior, the United States Attorney’s office had accused General Motors of “knowingly, continuously and unlawfully” polluting the river, at the expense of “an immediate hazard to human life” and “the ecological balance of the waters.” But General Motors was just one of many to violate the Hudson River.

In Hastings-on-Hudson, from the late 1920s to the 1970s, the Anaconda Wire and Cable Company belched waste into the river. Farther north, in Croton-on-Hudson, Penn Central Railroad was dumping oil and lubricants into the water, killing wildlife and tainting beaches. Paper mills along the Hudson discharged pulpy sludge in Rensselaer County, and in Newburgh, sprawling junkyards contaminated soil and river alike. Meanwhile, in Manhattan, city sewers hauled tens of millions of gallons of sewage directly into the water.

“We were shocked to learn of the scale of pollution and environmental degradation throughout the 19th and 20th centuries,” says Marci Reaven, vice president of history exhibits for the New-York Historical Society, which recently concluded an exhibit about the river’s history, titled, “Hudson Rising.” Yet, despite the long-running and widespread profligacy toward the Hudson, there is one that far outpaced all others.

 


A brief history of a dirty river

1896  What would eventually become the General Motors plant in North Tarrytown begins manufacturing automobiles — and dumping the industrial waste into the river. In the following decades, a roster of factories will follow suit, turning the Hudson into an “industrial sewer,” according to Greg Williams, who leads the Beacon-based environmental advocacy organization Hudson River Sloop Clearwater.

1947  At two manufacturing plants north of Albany, General Electric begins discharging PCBs into the Hudson, contaminating the water and injuring wildlife. The PCBs remain a problem today, even after GE was ordered to dredge the river in 2005.

1962  Indian Point opens in Buchanan, and almost immediately, its adverse effect on the Hudson is clear. Fish are caught and killed in its filters, and later, radioactive water seeps into the ground and then the river.

Photo courtesy of The Historical Society Serving Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown

1976  Due to the prevalence of PCBs in local fish, New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation prohibits any and all fishing in northern parts of the Hudson and bans almost all commercial fishing operations in the entire river.

1984  The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies the Hudson as a Superfund site, meaning it’s “some of the nation’s most contaminated land,” in the lexicon of the agency.

2019  The EPA grants a certificate of completion to GE for its years of PCB dredging. But soon after, New York State sues the EPA, noting the PCB levels remain “dangerously high” in portions of the river.


The worst offender

“General Electric is head and shoulders above the rest,” says Clearwater’s Williams. In the 1940s, General Electric set up two plants, in Fort Edward and Hudson Falls, tasked with manufacturing electronics components. The two towns are more than 150 miles north of Westchester — but also upstream. And so, from 1947 to 1977, more than one million pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, from those two plants flowed into the river and downstream, contaminating the water and wildlife in its wake.

Known for their longevity and toxicity, PCBs were man-made chemicals used for their insulating and fire-prevention properties in the manufacture of electrical devices. As they accumulated in the Hudson, they mixed with the sediment, contaminated fish, and adversely affected the humans who ate those fish. PCBs likely cause cancer in humans and have also been linked to thyroid and immune-system disorders, among other illnesses. “General Electric is the primary source of the PCBs that make the fish unsafe to eat,” Williams explains.

 In 1976, as the prevalence and danger of PCBs became known, the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation took drastic steps: It prohibited any and all fishing in northern parts of the Hudson and shuttered nearly all commercial fishing operations up and down the entire river. The department also issued a warning to would-be Hudson fish eaters: Eat no more than one Hudson River fish each week, and children and pregnant women should eat none at all.

“It was a wake-up call for the entire community. It changed everything,” Gallay recalls. “[It] put a tremendous number of our commercial fisherman out of business.” But it also provided positive momentum to environmental activists: “It allowed us to pivot forward, into a more active restoration mode.”

As GE was flooding the river with PCBs, another antagonist arrived, in 1962. That’s the year in which a new nuclear power plant, named Indian Point, arrived on the riverbanks of Buchanan. Currently in the process of being decommissioned, Indian Point had provided enough energy to power millions of homes, with controversy to match.

Almost immediately, the plant’s adverse effect on the river was clear. A 1963 report from the Times notes, “A major problem of fish…is challenging the ingenuity of company engineers.” Striped bass, carp, catfish, and other species were being caught and killed in the plant’s filters.

Local watchdog groups like Ossining’s Riverkeeper (above) and Pete Seeger’s Clearwater (below) have been championing local environmental causes since the mid-1960s. Photos courtesy of Riverkeeperand Hudson River Sloop Clearwater

The 50-year-old Times article reports that “the fish are not killed by radiation.” But in subsequent years, toxins, and not just filters, did prove to be a threat. Beginning in the 1980s, Riverkeeper learned that the plant’s radioactive spent fuel storage pools (the spent fuel is stored on-site) were leaking contaminated water into the Hudson.

Riverkeeper maintains a timeline of these leaks on its website, and, according to the document, accidents have occurred at least once per decade since the 1980s. In 1988, “8,400 gallons of radioactively contaminated water leak[ed] into the Hudson River through a crack in the condenser blowdown line,” the timeline asserts. Four years later, another leak was discovered. Most recently, in 2011, a monitoring well near one of the reactors showed high levels of tritium, a radioactive isotope.

In 1984, a ruling from the Environmental Protection Agency made official what was already apparent to so many: The Hudson River was in grave danger. That year, the EPA classified 200 miles of the Hudson River — from Hudson Falls to Manhattan — as a Superfund site. The Superfund law and classification branded the Hudson as one of the nation’s most contaminated environments and allowed the EPA to both take cleanup action and hold polluters accountable. This news came less than a decade after the commercial fishing ban. “It was one blow after another,” Gallay says.

As the Hudson’s health deteriorated, a cadre of environmentally minded residents looked on in horror and were galvanized to take action. Perhaps chief among them was an activist with a national profile: folk singer Pete Seeger.

In 1966, shortly after the then-47-year-old Seeger moved to Beacon, he founded the nonprofit Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, “to draw attention to the Hudson River, in hopes of getting people to take better care of it,” Williams explains. “At this time, most of the Hudson River’s banks were industrialized, and there was very little public access.” Seeger’s song “My Dirty Stream” illuminates both the singer’s frustration and optimism: “Sailing down my dirty stream/Still I love it and I’ll keep the dream/That some day, though maybe not this year/My Hudson River will once again run clean.”

Together with other nonprofits, distraught residents, and regulators, the movement to clean up the Hudson has had signature victories over the decades.

Today, Clearwater is a multisided project: There’s the sloop itself, a 106-foot-long sailboat that navigates the Hudson, visits ports, and teaches people about the Hudson’s ecology. There’s the advocacy work, which combats further pollution. And there’s the Great Hudson River Revival — colloquially known as the Clearwater festival — an annual music event whose purpose is to convey the message of environmental activism and raise funds for cleanup.

But Clearwater is not alone in its mission. Riverkeeper has roots that go back to the 1960s, as does Scenic Hudson, the Poughkeepsie-based environmental nonprofit that preserves the Hudson’s ecology and beauty, explains Hayley Carlock, the group’s environmental advocacy director.

 Together with other nonprofits, distraught residents, and regulators, the movement to clean up the Hudson has had signature victories over the decades. In the early 1960s, Con Ed sought to build a hydroelectrical plant on Storm King Mountain in Orange County. The plan catalyzed the creation of Scenic Hudson and sparked a debate that lasted into the 1980s, when Con Ed eventually withdrew the proposal. Another major victory was the 1972 Clean Water Act, a federal law that greatly expanded protections for the Hudson and other waterways.

The Clearwater flotilla at Indian Point. Photo courtesy of Hudson river Sloop Clearwater

In the present, threats new and old

Though many of the factories that had dotted the Hudson’s banks are now defunct, the river’s champions are as busy as ever. On a chilly morning this past December, a handful of staff bustled around Riverkeeper’s headquarters in Ossining. Inside the red, two-story building, just a few steps from the Hudson’s east bank, staff were putting the final touches on the organization’s annual journal.

A centerpiece in this year’s edition are the proposed storm surge barriers in New York City, where the Hudson flows into the Atlantic. The barriers are intended to prevent coastal flooding, but at a steep cost to ecology. “It would mean closing off the harbor,” says Cliff Weathers, Riverkeeper’s communications director. “That’s problematic for a lot of reasons. The tide that goes in and out is like the breath of the river. If fish can’t find their way past the gates, they’re not going to come up river to spawn.”

Scenic Hudson is also fiercely opposed to some of the proposed barriers. “Decades of work to restore the river’s aquatic habitat could be completely undone,” Carlock explains. She says any plans to mitigate flooding must safeguard Hudson habitats rather than jeopardize them.

At Clearwater, the staff is also busy confronting new threats. In Newburgh, a proposed $500 million rebuilding of the natural gas Danskammer Power Plant would bring hundreds of megawatts of energy to the region. But the fact that it is a gas-fired power plant immediately adjacent to the Hudson has Williams and his colleagues concerned. “It’s a very conspicuous point of land that is very close to the water level, and it has already flooded on one occasion,” he says. Others are opposed to the plant, as well: In summer 2019, Beacon’s city government passed a resolution condemning the project. 

Clearwater is also advocating the modernization of certain outdated aspects of municipal infrastructure along the Hudson. So-called “combined sewer systems” gather rain water, sewage, and industrial waste in the same pipe, and bring the mix to the local sewage plant. But during intense rain or snow, this system can back up, and overflow is diverted into the Hudson.

Carlock classifies these systems as “one of the most acute issues we face in terms of preventing people from accessing, swimming in, and enjoying the Hudson.” To combat the problem, Scenic Hudson is educating municipalities about better sewer management and helping them apply for grants to revamp sewer systems.

Yet, while there are no longer factories belching oil into the river, the U.S. Coast Guard recently unveiled a controversial proposal to transport oil over the river. In 2016, the Coast Guard announced a plan to allow massive oil barges to anchor along the Hudson River, from Yonkers to Kingston.

Predictably, activists and lawmakers along the Hudson were outraged: A “Ban the Barges” campaign swiftly emerged, led by Yonkers mayor Mike Spano and others in local government and civil society. “To reindustrialize the waterfronts of these communities would do long-term damage to what has been two decades of reinvestment taking place on our shores,” Spano told The New York Times in 2016. “For us to go backward is just unconscionable.” In 2017, the Coast Guard suspended the plan.

There is a bill pending in the U.S. Senate that aims to outlaw the oil barge anchorages. When the bill passed in the House of Representatives last summer, Andy Bicking of Scenic Hudson cheered the news: “In 2016, the Hudson Valley was challenged by a proposal that would have transformed the Hudson riverfront into a virtual parking lot for maritime vessels transporting highly volatile and toxic Bakken crude oil,” he wrote.

The annual Clearwater festival remains a top draw for Westchesterites and the surrounding region. Photo by econosmith.com

In addition to these new challenges, Riverkeeper, Clearwater, Scenic Hudson, and others are also reckoning with the past. In April 2019, the EPA issued a Certificate of Completion of Remedial Action to GE for its PCB dredging over the past decade (the second certificate of three, the third of which is not expected to be available to GE for more than five decades). But in August 2019, New York State sued the EPA for that decision, citing “evidence that [PCB] concentrations remain dangerously high in portions of the river.” 

“Since the EPA has failed to hold GE accountable for restoring the river, New York is taking action to demand a full and complete remediation,” wrote Governor Andrew Cuomo in a memo. Williams agrees with Cuomo: “[GE] remains resistant to cleaning that mess up,” he says.

Similarly, even though Indian Point is in the process of decommissioning, its effects on the Hudson will continue well into the future. In the feature titled “Life After Indian Point,” (Westchester Magazine, November 2019), Riverkeeper legal director Richard Webster explained that the decommissioning will bring a new set of problems. He noted that spent fuel will remain on the property for some time: “It’s very radioactive; it’s really unsafe to work around.”

All this activism has gone a long way. “The Hudson River today looks dramatically better than it did in 1966,” Williams says. But he quickly tempers that assessment with: “With few exceptions, you still can’t eat the fish out of it.”

Dan Harrison is the former president and current board member of the Hudson River Fisherman’s Association (HRFA), a nonprofit that promotes recreational fishing in the Hudson and fights pollution. When it comes to fish consumption, he’s a bit more liberal than Williams. “I personally have no problem eating the fish. My belief is that the river is cleaner now than it has been, even in the 1920s and 1930s,” he says.

 


Hudson River pollution by the numbers

1.3 million pounds of PCBs dumped into the Hudson River by General Electric over the course of 30 years.

310,000 pounds of PCBs dredged from the Hudson by General Electric from 2009 to 2015, in a court-mandated effort to clean up the river.

8,400 gallons of radioactively contaminated water leaked out of Indian Point and into the Hudson River in 1988, via a crack in a condenser.

200 miles of the Hudson River classified as a Superfund site by the Environmental Protection Agency.


Riverkeeper sweep volunteers — who removed a total of 32 tons of trash in 2019 — celebrate a succesful shoreline-cleanup outing. Photo courtesy of Riverkeeper

A changing climate, a changing river

For the near future, groups like Riverkeeper will remain focused on the river’s water quality. Riverkeeper carefully monitors data like bacteria levels and dissolved oxygen levels, which influence fish health. At the moment, it’s looking good: “The trend is positive,” Gallay explains. “We’re excited that water quality has gotten so much better,” even though it takes more than clean water to foster a healthy ecosystem, as overaggressive fishing and outdated dams threaten fish populations and their habitats, Gallay adds.

Restaurateur Peter Kelly has also noticed the progression of the river in recent years. “I’ve worked my entire life in the Hudson Valley, so the river means everything to me, and I have been fortunate to watch its transformation in the past several years,” says Kelly, an award-winning chef who owns and runs X2O, Xaviars on the Hudson, which is perched right on the water’s edge in Yonkers. “It was in the mid-’80s that I began working with the first ‘Riverkeeper,’ John Cronin, in Garrison, and later with Ned Sullivan from Scenic Hudson. More recently, I was part of the inaugural gala with Chefs for Clearwater. I can tell you that as a business owner, being even a small part of the effort to protect and improve our most awesome natural resource has been very rewarding.”

Retired NYPD lieutenant and Riverkeeper habitat restoration manager George Jackman, PhD, holds an American eel during a survey of Fuwrnace Brook in Cortlandt Manor. Photo courtesy of Riverkeeper

Still, you can’t rest assured about the future of the Hudson without acknowledging the elephant in the room, also known as the prodigious regulatory backslide under the Trump administration. Much of the progress in recent decades is under threat as the federal government continues to roll back environmental protections. “They’re proposing to cut spending on environmental improvement, to weaken regulation,” Gallay explains. “It’d be an embarrassment if it wasn’t such a shameful disaster.” But, he adds, strong local and state regulations can act as a bulwark. “Local governments are investing in their water-treatment infrastructure. They’re recognizing the potential for people to get back into and onto the water, and the State of New York is providing grant funding to the tune of $3.4 billion for drinking-water safety and waste-water-treatment infrastructure.”

In the longer term, a looming problem facing the Hudson is climate change. “Sea levels continue to rise, and flooding along the Hudson continues to become more frequent,” says Williams. “The more often it floods, the more often you have problems with the combined sewage system.” It is not pollution, per se, but it can nonetheless endanger people, wildlife, and habitats.

Gallay anticipates a sea level rise of nearly two feet over the next 30 years, which will be an “enormous challenge” for both humans on the waterfront and the river’s wildlife, which have adapted to specific water levels, he notes.

At Waterfront Alliance, a Manhattan-based nonprofit protecting the region’s shorelines, the team is preparing for the inevitable issues climate change will bring. Roland Lewis, the group’s president and CEO, says flooding from rain — along with storm surges like Hurricane Sandy — can “wreak all sort of devastation up and down the Hudson Valley.” Shore communities, Amtrak trains, and other infrastructure are all in harm’s way, he says.

The Riverkeeper patrol boat passes through Irvington on its way back from New York City. Photo courtesy of Riverkeeper

And while the region’s laws and practices have improved to address pollution, the same can’t be said for addressing climate change; “woeful inadequacy” is the phrase Lewis uses. “We haven’t had a serious conversation yet about the true costs…and what areas are sustainable,” he explains. “I fear it will take one or two more catastrophic events to get us to wake up and seriously address what needs to be done.”

Lewis notes that climate change can’t be addressed piecemeal, with individual towns and states taking independent measures. There needs to be a comprehensive effort — something that doesn’t yet exist. “This is a true, multi-stakeholder, global challenge,” Lewis adds.

Amid this inertia, Waterfront Alliance has developed WEDG (“waterfront edge design guidelines”), which are like LEED standards but for shoreline resiliency. “It’s a set of principles to incentivize buildings developments [with] resiliency measures,” Lewis says. To receive WEDG verification, developers must take specific structural and landscaping measures, improve the local aquatic habitats, prioritize public access, and more.

Lewis says several projects in New York City, Philadelphia, and other cities have used the guidelines. Further, dozens of waterfront community groups in New York City have enacted resolutions demanding that developers use WEDG when building in the neighborhood. In 2020, Lewis and his colleagues are planning a campaign urging New York State, New Jersey, and New York City lawmakers to think more deeply, and act more quickly, about waterfront resiliency. “This is the great challenge of our lifetimes,” he says.


What you can do to help the Hudson

The region’s environmental nonprofits are always seeking volunteers. Hudson Valley residents can pick up trash, gather water samples, staff events, and more. To get involved, visit:

Riverkeeper
www.riverkeeper.org/get-involved/volunteer

Clearwater
www.clearwater.org/membership/volunteer-opportunities

Scenic Hudson
www.scenichudson.org/get-involved/volunteer


Kevin Zawacki is a freelance writer living in Peekskill and a regular contributor to both Westchester Magazine and 914INC.