Sunday, February 26, 2012

Environmental History on the Hudson

On Saturday afternoon, J. Winthrop Aldrich, Carl Petrich, and Richard Benas, three men who, in the late 1970s, played major roles in the effort to prevent the siting of a nuclear power plant in Cementon (now called Smith Landing), gathered at Stair Galleries to share their memories of the experience. The panel discussion, entitled "Framing the Viewshed: A Bend in the River," was moderated by Dorothy Heyl, a member of the Olana Landscape Viewshed Committee, and sponsored by The Olana Partnership.

In her opening remarks, Heyl recalled a conversation with Aldrich at his home in Barrytown during which he remarked, "A painting at Olana saved us from a nuclear power plant." That painting was this one: Winter Scene, Olana, circa 1890. As one of the participants asserted, "This view and this painting changed history." 

The painting was evidence in the hearings before the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board. Benas, who at the time worked for the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, testified at those hearings. In his testimony, he quoted extensively from the book The Landscape of Frederic Edwin Church: Vision of an American Era, by noted art historian David C. Huntington, to make the point that "to lose the view from Olana would destroy the vision for America that existed at that time." The following excerpts from Huntington's book were part of Benas's testimony at the hearings: 
"Winter Scene, Olana, c. 1890 . . . is an accurate sextant reading taken at Longitude 74 degrees, Latitude 42 degrees, in January. In this view, Church's inborn optimism dictates his choice of nature's moment; here the sharp, cold atmosphere and the sullen hues of a winter day are rescued from gloom by the newly arrived cheer of high luminous sunstruck clouds. . . . Winter Scene, Olana, shows the view in cloudy winter weather. On a crisp clear day, ridges of mountains break the horizon some sixty miles away. It is the view of expansionist America, an earthscape."
Photo by Chas A. Miller III
Critical to the success of the effort to prevent the nuclear power plant from being sited in the Olana viewshed was the environmental impact assessment written by Petrich. The initial EIA was so deficient that local protesters made changes to the document necessary. Then fresh from graduate school, Petrich, who worked at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, was assigned the task of revising the EIA. He knew nothing about Olana, so the first thing he did was to go to the library and consult what he called "the Google of the day": the Readers' Guide to Periodic Literature. That led him to a photo essay about Olana entitled "Must this mansion be destroyed?" which appeared in the May 13, 1966, issue of Life magazine. That was the beginning of two years of research and work, which included much time spent here in the community surrounding Olana. The result was a document that was received and approved, and, as a consequence, the recommendation was made that the project be blocked. 

The proposal for the nuclear power plant was rejected on March 23, 1979. It was the first time a project of this nature was rejected on the basis of environmental aesthetics. Five days later, the accident at Three Mile Island occurred. 


  1. Last winter a bipartisan advisory panel assembled by Rep. Chris Gibson met in Malta to discuss solutions to our local and national energy needs.

    It was a shame that no one else from Hudson or Greenport took part. But if they had, they'd have known that renewable energy technologies were a constant throughout the discussion. For all of the engineers, nuclear scientists and policy experts gathered - and some very accomplished people among them - renewables were an irreplaceable component of every model discussed. Apparently it was already common knowledge that there will be no substitute for the contributions required by that sector, and every subject discussed was backed up by numbers and graphs. These people were not kidding around.

    There were "green" industry rep's present, and tax experts who spoke about altering the code to encourage renewables. The Congressman was extremely interested in the latter subject, and was already quite knowledgeable. IMO, this should be encouraged.

    I came to the panel prepared to scrutinize any sign that nuclear power might be making a comeback to the Hudson River valley.

    What I was not prepared to find were arguments against the idea by industry technicians themselves.

    One unapologetic advocate for nuclear power - in fact, a nuclear physicist turned policy advisor - provided a devastating overview of any prospect for locating a nuclear plant in the Hudson Valley anytime soon (as in a century). The critique was based entirely on the numbers.

    He reviewed nuclear regulatory issues in detail against the certainty that any new plants would rely almost entirely on private investment. After his thorough review, the conclusion he barely had to spell out was that no investor would wait a decade and more navigating the kinds of prohibitive regulations that apply here in order to learn whether his substantial initial outlay might be viable or not.

    The subject of a possible public outcry was not even an issue in the calculation (though the successful effort to prevent a plant at Smith Landing in the 1970s surely contributed to today's regulatory realities).

    My point is, for anyone seriously considering defeating new nuclear power plants in New York state, I wouldn't waste any effort preparing a defense for the Hudson River.

    My own presentation concerned the fragile state of migratory fish in the Hudson, along with a review of the commitment and money society has already spent on the flora and fauna of the river (and it is still not enough!).

    I reviewed the adverse consequences of heating natural water bodies, and discussed the many hazards of coolant intake structures.

    I was received with the utmost respect, and even had several nuclear scientists acknowledge that they shared my concerns. I discovered that my presentation was largely unnecessary.

    Congressman Gibson was a respectful, open-minded listener who asked good questions. Despite my not agreeing with every one of his energy policies as they are now shaping up, I admire his practical mind and its generosity towards the subject matter itself.

    I thank Gossips for letting me post this. Until now I never found a venue in which to report on my experiences with the energy advisory panel, or anyone who even cared to ask me about it.

  2. Very interesting and thank you for the report.