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March 31, 2017

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Films cast spotlight on threats along the Hudson

By Jackie Lupo

HASTINGS — Experts on the environmental, legal, and economic aspects of current threats to the Hudson River shared their perspectives with a roomful of concerned residents last Friday, March 24, at the James Harmon Community Center.

The event, sponsored by the Hastings Conservation Commission, featured a screening of four installments of documentarian Jon Bowermaster’s short film series “The Hudson: A River at Risk.” The films highlight issues ripped from the headlines: barge anchorages, bomb trains, gas pipelines, and Indian Point. All 11 episodes of the series are viewable online at

Bowermaster, 62, is president of Oceans 8 Films and One Ocean Media Foundation. A writer, filmmaker, and adventurer, his assignments have taken him across the world’s oceans in a sea kayak and over Antarctica by dogsled for National Geographic magazine. For Bowermaster, a resident of Ulster County, issues in his backyard inspired the series, which has been screened from Troy to Battery Park.

The films contrast the picturesque landscape with manmade disruptions, such as endless “bomb trains” full of fracked crude oil snaking along the river; pipelines cutting scars through the countryside; and fuel barges disrupting the river’s gentle currents. The films advance environmentalists’ thesis that market pressures are turning the river into a fossil fuel superhighway, particularly since the U.S. government lifted the ban on oil exports in 2015. The fear is that this trend could undo the decades spent cleaning up the damage from industrial pollution.

A panel discussion following the screening included Erin Doran, a staff attorney for Riverkeeper; Audrey Friedrichsen, a land use and environmental advocacy attorney for Scenic Hudson; and Hastings resident Paul Harris, an energy development consultant. Audience members asked questions about how to fight back against the growth of the fossil fuel infrastructure, especially the proposal before the U.S. Coast Guard to allow additional anchorages for up to 43 vessels between Yonkers and Kingston. The anchorages would include locations opposite Hastings and Dobbs Ferry, where ships could remain for up to 30 days at a time.

One audience member asked whether local activism can help. Doran said the Coast Guard received 10,000 comments — an unusually large number — when they solicited public input last year. Even though the formal comment period ended, residents can still write to the Coast Guard, and should remain alert for notices about public hearings. She said other forms of activism could also be effective, such as urging local governments to pass resolutions condemning the proposal.

Doran noted that last week a bill was introduced in both houses of the state legislature that aims to bolster New York State’s ability to control activity on the river. The bill would change the state’s navigation law by establishing “tanker avoidance zones” — specific locations where tankers would be barred because their presence could negatively affect residents’ quality of life, local economic development, or preservation of sensitive natural habitats.

The Coast Guard is charged with evaluating the maritime industry’s assertion that more anchorages are necessary to provide safe places during emergencies. Opponents of the proposal call the industry’s argument specious, since the Coast Guard already allows vessels to anchor during emergencies. Opponent also charge that the real reason for the industry’s request for anchorages is to provide long-term water-borne fuel storage, which would be vulnerable to accidents and spills.

Resident Andy Zimmerman commented that before a recent storm, he noticed a string of barges berthed under the Palisades. “It looked like you had floating factories out there” because of the lights he could see from his home, Zimmerman said.

“For me,” Harris said, “the real reason to oppose the barges is the local impacts. The oil wants to go to market. I think we’re absolutely right to want to keep it off the Hudson.” But, he added, it is inevitable that the oil will come out of the ground and be transported to market somehow, and it is important to be careful about unintended consequences when establishing energy policies that favor one form of energy delivery over another. “If you shift things off the river, they go to the rail,” he said. “If you shift them off the rail, I don’t know — do they go back to the river?”

Friedrichsen noted that a train with fuel tanker cars derailed two weeks earlier in Newburgh. None of the tankers was breached. Friedrichsen said that new federal rules for tanker car safety were enacted in 2015, “but the industry received a long phase-in for how the tanker cars must be constructed.” In the meantime, she asserted, there are inadequate emergency response plans in place to deal with a serious derailment.

Harris provided a reality check, pointing out that the country’s energy policy has been based on what’s cheaper. From an economic standpoint, he asserted, wide-scale conversion from fossil fuels to renewable energy remains a challenge. Harris said a village the size of Hastings consumes about 12,000 gallons of oil and 1.5 million cubic feet of gas per day. He showed a map of the pipelines in the U.S., a vast network of underground arteries that includes a portion of the Tennessee Gas Pipeline, which passes under the Hudson at Dobbs Ferry.

As for the energy required for transportation, Harris said, “We will need a lot of windmills to power all-electric cars.”

Many audience members took Harris’ observations as their cue to insist that the growth of fossil fuel infrastructure must be stopped by any means. While most of the audience members belonged to the “Woodstock Generation,” an exception was 13-year-old Spencer Prevallet, an eighth-grader at Farragut Middle School. “I’m scared for my future and my children’s future,” said Spencer, who recently established an activism club at school.

Read more local coverage of your hometown in this week’s issue of the Rivertowns Enterprise. Newsstand copies are available at several locations listed above, or subscribe today for convenient home delivery.