On Earth Day, Hudson River's health tied to region's economy

The Hudson River as seen from Bear Mountain The Hudson River as seen from Bear Mountain State Park. Photo Credit: Jim Alcorn

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The region's economy is so connected to the health of the Hudson River that cleaning up New York's most famous waterway must be viewed as top priority, environmental leaders say.

The mighty river is a magnet for developers along its shorelines, tourists on its waters, farmers tilling riverside and businesses big and small.

"The goal is to keep the environment, the economy and quality of life all working together ... there's a reason that 'eco' is in the word 'economy,'" said Jeff Rumpf, executive director of Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, the Beacon-based green educational activist group founded by legendary folk singer Peter Seeger.

The river, plagued by pollution for more than a century, is also a natural gift in need of help, said John Lipscomb, the captain of the patrol boat owned by Riverkeeper, the Ossining-based environmental group.

"It's home for zillions of creatures," Lipscomb said. "It's a wilderness in our midst and a beautiful thing that should not be seen as something to be used or avoided. It should be restored because we want to share it with the planet."

While environmentalists and countless stakeholders have spent decades cleaning up the river and growing the surrounding communities, the task ahead has grown increasingly complex as tidal surges, flooding and other extreme weather-related disasters pummel the Hudson Valley's 2.3 million residents.

"The river is changing ... So we have to be adaptive and have to prepared to kind of learn as we go," said Phillip Musegaas, Riverkeeper's Hudson River program director.

TAKING THE RIVER'S PULSE

As the complex, 315-mile river courses down through the Hudson Valley, it becomes an estuary -- a water passage that connects to the open sea. It begins far north in the Adirondack Mountains and flows south to New York City where it meets the Atlantic Ocean at New York Bay.

But the Hudson's past as an industrial and transportation hub has left the riverfront littered with hazardous waste sites. While the federal Clean Water Act of 1972 set water quality standards that have reduced pollution, raw sewage overflows remain a serious problem, environmentalists and health officials say.

The situation is especially dangerous after heavy rains when fecal matter from humans and animals spills out from manholes, leaky pipes and sewage treatment plants, putting swimmers or anyone in the river at risk of illnesses such as eye infections, septic meningitis, skin infections, fever and pneumonia.

"The patient is stable and improving," said Musegaas. "The river is much cleaner than it was 40 years ago and much cleaner than it was even 10 years ago."

In the late 1940s, two upstate General Electric factories near Fort Edwards began dumping PCBs upriver. The company is now spending $1 billion to remove more than 1 million tons of PCBs from that 4-mile stretch in what is the single largest Superfund dredging project in the country, according to federal officials.

While digging out the polychlorinated biphenyls will take a few years, the PCB-contaminated fish population will need at least a few decades to recover, experts say. Until then, state health officials warn recreational anglers to limit how often they eat species that accumulate PCBs in their fatty tissues -- catfish, American eel and the ever-popular striped bass, to name a few.

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CLIMATE CHANGE AND SHORELINES

Climate change has brought the extremes of blistering heat waves, drought and more frequent 100-year storms that have municipalities rethinking waterfront development. Flooding in low-lying areas has also been a continuing problem.

From 1997 to 2010, flooding alone cost the region $262 million. Since then, the $1.5 billion in damage caused by 2011's tropical storm Irene will be far exceeded by the $42 billion toll of local destruction brought on by superstorm Sandy, according to the recently released Mid-Hudson Regional Sustainability Plan, a document prepared by municipal planners that proposes ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2015.

The region's economy has always been tied to the fortunes of neighboring New York City, making the train lines that run along the river an essential artery for pumping commuters to jobs throughout the area. This month, Metro-North added 187 trains to its schedule in the largest expansion in the railroad's history, with many extra trains running in Westchester.

The rise of car-free commuting along the river and other places is reducing carbon emissions. The region produces .5 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and 13 percent of New York State emissions, equaling the annual emissions of Ecuador, a country with six times as many people, according to the region's sustainability plan.

REINVENTING THE LAND

The factories of the past have left behind a legacy of old buildings and polluted land. But as cleanups are completed, the properties can be repurposed as parks and mixed-use developments that contain residences, offices, retail stores and more, the environmentalists said.

About 11 percent of the Hudson Valley is active farmland that is building a reputation in the farm-to-table movement, where the region's bounty is feeding both locals and supplying many New York City farmers markets, specialty shops and restaurants. Farms in areas near the river benefit from milder temperatures that warm fields and allow for the growing of a wider range of crops.

Waterfront parks are also on the rise. High-profile projects include the 87-acre West Point Foundry Preserve, the $8.8 million makeover of an abandoned 19th century iron foundry in Cold Spring, which involved a Superfund cleanup across the street that removed 189,000 tons of contaminated soil from a former military battery factory that had dumped nickel, cadmium and other toxic metals into Foundry Cove. The park is scheduled to open in the fall, just in time for Scenic Hudson's 50th anniversary.

"What makes the Hudson Valley an attractive and healthy place to live is that its open space resources still exist," said Steve Rosenberg, vice president for Scenic Hudson, a leading Poughkeepsie environmental group that protects farmland, builds park and is helping communities manage storm surges. "That creates a sense of place and makes its communities here unique and not just Anywhere, USA."

NEW BRIDGE, OLD HABITAT

In March, both Riverkeeper and Scenic Hudson announced their support for construction of a new $3.9 billion Tappan Zee Bridge. Their backing followed a year of behind-the-scenes negotiations to hold bridge contractors to higher environmental standards that would protect the river's endangered Atlantic sturgeon and shortnosed sturgeon. The concessions included $11.5 million to restore wildlife habitats. The funds will also offer seed money to riverfront communities which took a beating from superstorm Sandy-related flooding and now face the prospect of having their development stalled by bridge construction.

"If we can improve water quality and protect river habitat, we can give these iconic fish species a fighting chance and we will see real environmental and economic benefits to the Hudson Valley," Musegaas said.

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