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New York Times

Changing Tides on the Hudson
June 26, 2005

By Julia Vitullo-Martin

THE Hudson is one of America's great rivers - so magnificent and awesome, tidal all the way to Troy, 150 miles upstream from New York City, that the early explorers thought it was a passage to the distant sea. Yet its very power made it susceptible to industrial abuse, since it seemed to carry away and disperse large quantities of pollutants.

In the 20th century, this vulnerability nearly ruined it. Industry dumped poisons like mercury, benzene and PCB's that sank to the river's bottom, where they remain, leaching toxins in the water. In the 1960's, citizens began forming coalitions to expose the Hudson's near destruction and to lobby successfully for its protection. Today's Hudson, while not fully pristine, is cleaner than it's been since the mid-19th century.

Unfortunately, the region's environmental groups downplay their success, emphasizing the river's decline, not its rebirth. Given the river's unhappy history of exploitation, they continue to look at the Hudson and see a river in peril.

The most recent example of this view comes in the form of a Pace Poll, conducted in conjunction with the Pace Academy for the Environment at Pace University, that explored the attitudes toward the river of residents of the 17 counties along the Hudson. The much-trumpeted survey, according to its press release, concluded that these residents had become "complacent" on environmental issues. John Cronin, the Hudson's first Riverkeeper and now the director of the academy, says the survey highlights a "disturbing trend that if left alone will prove catastrophic for the river's future."

But that's not the case, and the survey proves no such thing. In fact, its results are more nuanced. They reflect the belief by most respondents that the river can be protected and developed at the same time.

Let's look at the numbers. Sixty-six percent of those polled rate the environment as "very important" in relation to other issues, while an additional 12 percent rate it as "most important." These numbers hardly reflect complacency.

Furthermore, the poll showed that residents are generally satisfied with their local environment. A majority, 55 percent, rate their environment as very good or excellent, and only 44 percent as fair or poor. At the same time, the poll showed that the majority, or 53 percent, of those surveyed say they support some new industrial development.

This last finding doesn't mean residents support all and every industrial development - they defeated a coal-fired cement plant in Columbia County, after all. A closer look at the answers shows that of the 43 percent who oppose development, 28 percent strongly endorse "no development" because of the risk to the "natural splendor" of the river. Fifteen percent, however, only "somewhat agreed" with no development. Another 28 percent "somewhat agreed" with limited development. And 25 percent strongly endorse "limited" development. While a small minority supports blocking all development on the riverfront, more than two-thirds support varying amounts of limited industrial development on the river.

Hudson residents recognize that sound development can bring good things, including new jobs, new residents and a reduced tax burden. Sure there are pockets of wealth along the Hudson, but most communities are poor, with high unemployment rates. Newburgh, for example, has an unemployment rate of 11.3 percent, compared with a statewide rate of 4.6 percent.

When asked to name the most important problems facing the Hudson River area, 17 percent say jobs and the economy, 16 percent say taxes, 14 percent say education and schools and 10 percent say affordable housing.

What the Pace Poll shows is that far from being complacent on environmental issues, residents along the Hudson River are sophisticated. They know that they don't have to choose between environmental stewardship and development. No company will again be allowed to build a plant like General Electric's, which spewed PCB's directly into the Hudson for years. New companies will be required to invest in "clean" technology. New residential developments will not be allowed to channel sewage into the waterways.

And this is all good news. The Hudson River and the residents along its shore have moved beyond the past and embraced the subtle balance that will provide a prosperous future and a healthy environment. Let's hope the environmentalists do, too.

Julia Vitullo-Martin is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

©2005 New York Times

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