Hudson reindustrial plan offered

River towns divided over proposed to build a dozen plants in the region

March 23, 2000|By Tracie Rozhon | Tracie Rozhon,New York Times News Service

NEW YORK -- Decades after smokestack industries largely disappeared from the Hudson River valley, leaving behind an environmental and economic mess that took years to reverse, plans are afoot to build more than a dozen industrial plants in the region.

The proposals -- including a $500 million power plant in the town of Athens, a $680 million paper recycling and power plant in Ulster, and a $300 million cement factory in Greenport -- have sharply divided towns up and down the river that have struggled, and slowly recovered, since the decline of heavy industry.

Those who oppose the plants say they threaten to undermine the effort to reclaim the Hudson from industrial pollution and to rebuild the region's economy through tourism.

But others welcome the return of manufacturing -- particularly the Pataki administration, which has vigorously wooed the companies with promises of state-sponsored tax-exempt bonds and local tax breaks. They say it will lure better-paying blue-collar jobs to a region where employment has improved markedly in recent years, but where wages still lag behind those of more prosperous areas.

And they are adamant that the factories will not harm the river.

"If I thought a plant would destroy the natural beauty of the Hudson River, I would act," Gov. George Pataki said in an interview. "But it's not got to the point where anyone has told me this is destroying the scenic beauty."

A spokesman for Pataki said that since the governor took office in 1995, the state had spent $256 million on cleaning and protecting the Hudson.

"We are pro-business, pro-industry," said Pataki, whose family home overlooks the river in Garrison. "We are also pro-environment. There isn't any dichotomy."

Environmentalists and many residents are unconvinced, saying that the administration has oversold the promise of factory jobs and tax revenue and underestimated the environmental cost.

"Instead of everyone saying the river's never been cleaner, we should be saying the river's never been under such threat," said Alan Neumann, president of Hudson River Heritage, a preservation group established 25 years ago. "It's been decades since we've been faced with such a concentrated series of proposals."

The proposed plants, most of which would use the river for some part of their operation, are early in the approval process. A spokesman for the Public Service Commission said a decision on whether to build the 1,080-megawatt Athens plant -- it would be the largest-capacity power plant in the country -- has been postponed for the third time, until April 30. But the final approval on air quality standards has already been granted, as has the draft permit for water discharge.

Officials with St. Lawrence Cement Co., which plans to ferry cement along two miles of conveyor belts to the riverfront, say they hope to conduct public hearings this summer. They filed their final environmental impact study on March 1.

But even if the final decisions are months or years away, emotions are running high. Twelve New York environmental and preservation groups, led by Scenic Hudson, wrote to Pataki recently urging a moratorium on industrial development until the state issues an overall plan for the development of the Hudson River.

For more than a century, the people of the Hudson Valley have tried to balance industry and the scenic landscape.

Poets, painters and philosophers trumpeted the virtues of the wilderness and the beauty of the river, and along the way the industrialists built their railroads and factories.

First came brick factories, iron mines and riverside quarries, then cement factories and later General Electric, all in search of cheap, unlimited river water.

By the 1960s, the Hudson River was in trouble. Industries had been dumping chemicals, and municipalities had been dumping sewage. Scientists found fish full of PCBs from the General Electric plant in the Upper Hudson, cadmium from a battery factory near Cold Spring, diesel fuel from the Metro-North yards near Croton-Harmon. The authorities banned commercial fishing and advised people not to eat striped bass caught in the river.

Meanwhile, groups committed to saving the Hudson sprang up, and by the early 1990s the river was being reclaimed. Billions of state and federal dollars built state-of-the-art municipal treatment plants. Chemical dumping was curtailed.

Anticipating the deregulation of the electric industry, and eager to compete for business, New York state in 1992 created a board to expedite permits to build environmentally sound power plants. More recently, with the economy in New York City booming and demand for cement and computer chips growing, the Pataki administration began courting more industry.

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