By Brian P.J. Cronin
Photo: Chris Rahm
Globetrotting filmmaker Jon Bowermaster comes home to a river in peril.
Jon Bowermaster’s first assignment for National Geographic took him as far as he could possibly get from his Hudson Valley home in Stone Ridge without falling off of the earth: Antarctica, where he spent seven months chronicling a 3,741- mile trip by dogsled. Subsequent journeys have taken him around the globe by sea kayak over the course of 10 years, from the markets of Morocco down to the mountains of Kenya, from death-defying river expeditions in China and Chile to jam-packing his rental car with scores of hitchhikers in the Cuban countryside. But of all the projects he’s currently working on, the one closest to his heart is the one that’s closest to his home—even if sometimes it can feel like he’s back in the most remote areas of wilderness in the world. “I took my kayak out on the Hudson River last summer on July 4th,” he said, “and there was no one around! I had the whole river to myself. The river is an incredibly underutilized and underappreciated resource, in terms of recreation. I mean, there are some pollution issues…”
Those pollution issues are at the heart of Bowermaster’s latest endeavor, entitled The Hudson: A River at Risk. Consisting of mini-documentaries, photos and text, The Hudson: A River at Risk is a fluid and continuously changing project that examines the biggest threats facing the Hudson River today and the people who are fighting to protect it.
In many ways, this is a golden age for the Hudson River. Gone are the days of the river being stained with candy-colored paint from auto plants, of Exxon tankers discharging boatloads of pollutants before refilling its hulls with clean water from the river’s secret underwater springs and selling it to the Aruban government, of plans to blow the face off of Storm King Mountain and replace it with a hydroelectric plant. Stand on the banks of the river at any point in between Albany and the Battery and there’s a good chance that the water looks and smells cleaner than it has at any point in the last 50 years.
But looks can be deceiving. As Dr. David Carpenter, the director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University of Albany, says in the film, “The Hudson River is a beautiful hazardous-waste site.”
The river’s unique geological features, its varying depths, its rocking tides of saltwater from southern seas mixing with freshwater from the northern mountains, help to spread and disperse the pollutants and sewage that the river still takes in, from both legal and illegal sources, on a daily basis. Robert Boyle wrote in his classic book The Hudson River: A Natural and Unnatural History that “[t]he river has been spared biological annihilation by geographic accident. If New York City had been built fifty miles further up, say where Peekskill or Newburgh are, the Hudson would probably be a dead river.”
Some of the river’s greatest threats today are invisible to the naked eye. And some of them are issues that many people think have been already taken care of.
“People including me,” says Bowermaster. “I thought I was all caught up on these issues, but I’ve been caught off guard. The PCB thing, that is really bothersome. I was under the impression, like I think many people were, that it was a done deal.”
Between 1947 and 1977, General Electric discharged millions of pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) into the upper Hudson River at Fort Edward and Hudson Falls. When it was discovered in the late 1970s just how widespread and massive the contamination was, the Hudson River’s entire commercial fishing industry was out of business overnight.
It then took 35 years of activism and court orders before General Electric finally relented and began the multibillion-dollar cleanup project that the Environmental Protection Agency had outlined for them in 2009 under the Superfund program. In the fall of 2015, GE finished the cleanup, having removed 2.65 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment.
“And now it turns out that it’s as bad as it was when they started, even after six years and two billion dollars,” says Bowermaster.
As the film explains, the EPA’s cleanup plan was based on research done throughout the 1990s. Further research has shown the contamination to be three times greater than previously estimated, yet the EPA declined to update the cleanup plan—possibly out of fear that GE would further delay the cleanup with a fresh round of litigation of the terms changed. So while GE has already declared that their mission has been accomplished, it’s estimated that the river won’t recover for another 50 to 100 years. In the end, families that settled along the Hud- son in the late 1970s could go through six generations before their members can safely eat what they catch from the river without restrictions.
It’s not just the fish that are affected. In one of the project’s more alarming moments, Dr. Carpenter explains the little-known fact that PCBs in the water are capable of making their way into the air as well. “People who live along the Hudson tend to have higher incomes,” he explains. “They tend to be better educated. They smoke less, they eat more fruits and vegetables and they exercise more. All characteristics of healthier lifestyles. Yet they have significantly higher rates of hospitalization for heart disease, for diabetes, for respiratory infections, than people who don’t live along the Hud- son River. And I think that’s telling.”
If that fact caught your attention, you’re not alone. As of press time, Bowermaster was in talks with the New York Times about creating a cut of the PCB segment for their website. “That information was what they were most interested in,” he said.
It wouldn’t be the first time that part of the project has appeared on the New York Times’ website. Last year, the segment of “The Hudson” that examines the so-called bomb trains—freight trains carrying loads of highly combustible crude oil from North Dakota in trains that are too flimsy to safely protect them and are prone to derailments because of their mile-long lengths—debuted on the website’s homepage. The trains have been involved in dozens of accidents throughout the United States and Canada, including an explosion in Montreal a few years ago that leveled an entire neighborhood and killed 47 people. When the film was shot, these trains were still making their way down the west bank of the Hudson from Albany to New York City on a daily basis.
“We could draw the short straw next,” says Paul Gallay, the president of Riverkeeper, in the segment. “The advantage of having that piece on the New York Times’ site is they get a lot of eyeballs,” said Bowermaster. “When the Times covers an issue, it tends to legitimize it.” It also draws action, not just attention. Thanks in part to the overwhelming public outcry, the Department of Transportation announced in May a set of new regulations for the trains, including stronger cars and slower speeds.
Bowerman isn’t resting on his laurels. The regulations won’t go into effect for years, so the bomb-train segment is still a vital component of the project as a whole. “That’s the beauty of this project,” he said. “It’s made for the web, so we can keep changing it. I think it will continue to grow for years. At some point, I suppose we’ll cut a feature-length documentary out of it, but that’s not really on the front burner.”
The project contains other segments about such timely topics as the gargantuan energy highway consisting of oversized power lines that has been proposed by Governor Cuomo to bring energy from upstate power plants down to New York City, and the need for vigilance during the construction of the bridges that will replace the Tappan Zee Bridge to ensure the work being done is in compliance with environmental permits and regulations. (Spoiler alert: it’s not.) But the project’s biggest potential to make a difference may be about the topic that many people consider to be the biggest threat to the river, and everything else in the Hudson Valley: the aging nuclear power plant near Peekskill known as Indian Point.
The plant has been plagued by controversy and accidents since it opened in 1962. Even when the plant is operating smoothly, it’s discharging 2.5 billion gallons of heated water into the river every day, harming all marine life in its vicinity. But the heated water is nothing compared to the ever increasing rate of fires, spills, accidental shutdowns, leaks and corroded bolts that the plant deals with. Not to mention that it’s located on a fault line. Or the lack of security on the river in front of the plant. Or the absence of a viable evacuation plan for the 20 million people who live within the 50-mile blast zone that surrounds the plant. And it’s less than 35 miles from Midtown Manhattan.
Bowermaster once asked John Lipscomb, the Hudson Riverkeeper boat captain, how the plant could possibly still be in operation.
“I mean, we were able to stop fracking by hounding the governor relentlessly about how we don’t want fracking in our state,” Bowermaster said. “So I asked John, why don’t we have the same sort of fervor about this nuclear plant that even the governor agrees is a problem? And he said that the potential threat is so monumental, so big, that we can’t even wrap our heads around it. So we don’t even try. That’s why it’s still there. I think if we had 50 protesters outside Indian Point every day, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would wear down. But we don’t see that.”
We don’t see that yet. But The Hudson: A River at Risk is a project with no end date and no limitations. As long as Bowermaster keeps adding to it, updating it and pushing it out in front of people, there’s no reason why the project can’t continue to serve as a catalyst for lasting environmental change along the Hudson River.
“The highest compliment I can get,” he said, “is when people turn to me after a screening and say, ‘I had no idea.’”
For more information and to see the documentary, visit www.hudsonriveratrisk.com.█