Shock Corridor

How a Long-Dormant Law Could Spark a Hudson Valley Power Plant Boom

Indeed, under deregulation, Athens Gen can sell its power anywhere it likes—even out of state. "Special treatment can't be on the grounds that it's good for New York," says Westchester Democrat Richard Brodsky, chair of the assembly's environmental conservation committee. "These plants are no more relevant to New York than a plant that makes widgets in Nepal."

Last year, PG&E reported operating revenues of $20.8 billion. Athens, with a population of under 4000, lies in Greene County, where the average per capita income is $20,009. "This is not a wealthy community," says Laura Skutch, a part-time Athens resident and leading foe of the plant. "These power companies target areas where people don't have the resources to fight."

Indeed, the most potent weapon in the fight against PG&E isn't in Athens at all—it's on the other side of the Hudson, some five miles south as the crow flies. It's Olana, the spectacular home of 19th-century landscape painter Frederic Church, whose romantic renditions of the river and nearby Catskill Mountains made the Hudson River Valley world famous.

illustration courtesy of Rex Babin/Times Union

Admittedly, you can't see the Athens site from the Olana grounds at present—trees have grown up on the north slope since Church's day. Still, Olana is fiercely protective of its views: They help make it the second most popular tourist attraction in the Hudson Valley (after the Roosevelt/Vanderbilt site), bringing revenues to the area estimated at $9 million a year.

The perceived threat to Olana has sparked plenty of outcry—not only from environmentalists like Scenic Hudson, Clearwater, the National Resources Defense Council, and the Sierra Club, but from the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the Preservation League of New York State. Senator Daniel Moynihan requested a federal review. Even The New York Times weighed in, calling Athens Gen the "right plant" in the "wrong place" and declaring "it is essential to establish the principle that the environment has a claim in these decisions."

Of course, there are those who argue that the plant will ultimately help the environment—indirectly. Newer, gas-fired generating facilities are unquestionably less polluting than their nuclear and coal-fired predecessors. Athens Gen may also be cheaper to run—so much so, supporters say, that it could eventually help put the dirty old plants out of business.

But 'that is exactly what they said about nuclear plants in the 1960s," says Kevin Cahill, a Democratic assembly member from Kingston. And many of the coal-powered plants the nukes were supposed to replace are still running.

Last summer, when the governor's staff pushed a bill slightly amending Article 10 through the legislature, Brodsky and others fought for a provision requiring cleanups at old plants—to no avail. "All they did was allow Athens a glide path through the application process," says Cahill.

Even as the plant worked its way through the bureaucracy, PG&E waged a PR campaign in Athens. The company sponsored fireworks, a Christmas festival, a playground. It promised hundreds of construction jobs, plus an eventual supply of low-cost power that might spur local industry. (The plant itself will employ fewer than 30 people.)

PG&E's reps also schmoozed town officials. "They never had so much attention focused on them in their lives," says STOPP's Falzon. And what leverage did the town have when a state panel could override town laws? Eventually, the town board accepted PG&E's promise of $3 million for a "community trust fund" and promised not to oppose the plant. Last month, the board of Sleepy Hollow Lake, a development near the plant site, followed suit. When PG&E offered $350,000 toward lake improvements, the directors retracted their objections.

As the Siting Board's deadline grows near, opponents are working frantically to derail its decision. They argue that the Siting Board cannot legally issue all permits—that the DEC or Coastal Management or the Army Corps of Engineers may also have jurisdiction and should conduct studies that would slow the power juggernaut down. (Gordon's maneuvers forced DEC to hold the public hearing last week—but the agency seems disinclined to conduct an independent inquiry.)

A PSC spokesperson defends the Article 10 process, praising its environmental reviews as "substantial" and insisting plants are needed, since demand is expected to grow by an average of 1.2 percent a year. Ashok Gupta, senior energy economist for the NRDC, says that need could be met by three or four power plants—or perhaps even fewer, if the state beefed up conservation programs. "We came out against Athens, but will come out for others," he adds.

Whatever happens, the residents of Athens will bear the scars. The Teamsters have circulated a warning that the plant's enemies, well-off outsiders, want to turn tradesmen into "waitresses, domestics, and gardeners." At the hearing, several union men defended their right to jobs at good wages.

One electrician took on Frederic Church and Olana. 'He built himself a house on a hill to have a nice view—sound familiar?" he asked. "It's the wealthy looking down on the rest of us down in the valley." Opponents—natives and not, union and not, affluent and not—stood up to answer such charges. The DEC judge looked on impassively. Falzon blames PG&E for creating this mess. "It's divide and conquer," she says. "Something ugly and evil has entered this community."

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