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Cry Them A River


The city of 7,000 has experienced a remarkable, if spotty, revival thanks todozens of antiques dealers who moved here from Manhattan and turned WarrenStreet, the main street, into something of a Home Depot for interiordecorators from New York. However, there's a surreal quality about thepredominantly lower-middle-class town as the residents wheel theirchildren's strollers past shops selling Mies chairs.

St. Lawrence hasn't exactly allayed its opponents' pollution fears. The EPAchallenged the company's claim that the facility would be state-of-the-art.Even though St. Lawrence claims it will reduce emissions of sulphur dioxideby 85 percent and oxides of nitrogen by 27 percent as compared to the otherplant, its application asks for permission to raise pollution from 16million to 20 million pounds a year (by the opponents' math). And despitethe company's promises not to burn waste matter and old tires -- traditionallya valuable source of revenue for cement plants, including other St. Lawrenceplants around the country -- its enemies insist these promises are hollow andnonbinding.

Then there's the company's "dismal environmental record," as the BerkshireEagle put it in an editorial opposing the project. For example, in January,the Dallas Morning News reported that despite Holcim's promises to cutpollution in half at its giant plant in Midlothian, Texas (where St.Lawrence flew Columbia County residents in the hopes of impressing them withits prowess at making cement), pollution has actually increased.

One of the most important victories the judge handed opponents was her rulingthat the company's record at its other facilities could be considered indetermining whether to grant St. Lawrence permission to build in Greenport.

Of special concern is particulate matter, the tiny dust particles that lodgein the lungs and increase the risk of respiratory disease. A couple ofHarvard scientists hired by St. Lawrence say that particulate matter can bedivided into toxic and nontoxic types and make the rather intriguingargument that the smoke billowing from the plant's stack will be nontoxic.

"There are elemental compounds such as calcium and potassium that areunlikely to have any toxicity whether it's breathed as a particle, taken asa pill, or in any other form," explains John Godleski, one of the Harvardresearchers. "Do you take Tums?"

"It's what comes out of your teapot," says Dan Odescalchi.

Counters George Thurston, an NYU associate professor and the opponents'expert (he testified before the U.S. Senate on air quality at ground zero),"They're saying the kiln emissions would be nontoxic. I've been monitoringthe World Trade Center, and some of the most irritating particles that camefrom that disaster were cement-dust particles -- because they were veryalkaline. This is what we think was the cause of the 'World Trade Centercough.' "

Godleski and his Harvard colleague, Petros Koutrakis, may have an unwantedfootnote attached to their research. More than 40 Harvard grads who opposethe plant are signing a letter to their alma mater protesting the blasphemyof allowing their beloved college's name to be attached to St.Lawrence-sponsored research.

"It's a scandalous thing," says Ashton Hawkins, Harvard '59 and the formerexecutive vice-president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The HarvardSchool of Public Health is, in effect, endorsing the clean-air claims of thecement plant. A letter is being prepared to protest this to Harvard."

Hawkins's personal P.R. offensive has even extended so far as to buttonholehis friend Bill Moyers, his neighbor on Central Park West, in the elevator.Moyers is the producer of a recent majestic PBS documentary on the HudsonRiver that paid scant attention to the controversy. "I said, 'I hope you'regoing to do something on the cement plant,' " Hawkins reports. "He said,'Call me.' "

St. Lawrence's opponents' ads, which feature pictures of Chernobyl-likestacks belching black smoke, are just as slick as St. Lawrence's. One of themore mild and amusing ones, shot by Annie Leibovitz, a plant opponent whohas a weekend home in Rhinebeck, has a wrestler bear-hugging a tree. "Savethe Hudson Valley," it says. "Stop St. Lawrence Cement."

Perhaps the most effective piece of propaganda Friends of Hudson, thegrassroots organization spearheading opposition to the plant, has producedis a size-comparison chart that shows the proposed plant's astonishing bulknext to the Statue of Liberty's. Lady Liberty looks like a callow schoolgirlbeside the massive factory.

"They neglect to put the base of the Statue of Liberty," sniffs Odescalchi.

Sniffs back Sam Pratt, executive director of Friends of Hudson, "I didn'tinclude the base of the mountain, either." He's referring to BecraftMountain, where the company wants to "hide" the plant inside its quarry.

Many of the locals resent what they perceive to be the high-handed way theysay Friends of Hudson and other environmental groups have been unwilling tolisten to the plant's supporters or work with them to craft a compromise.

"An element of the local community, instead of trying to find out what wasright, immediately tried to kill it," claims Julia Phillips, an aristocraticwoman who runs an apple farm that's been in her husband's family since the1700s and who might be expected to side with the opposition to the plant.The view from her front yard would be of the factory's 400-foot stack. "Thatpolarized people in a way they didn't need to be polarized."

Despite the pollution arguments, the opponents probably stand their bestchance of defeating the plant on the issue of size. By St. Lawrence's ownadmission in its draft environmental-impact statement, the project would bevery large. "The height and mass of the proposed cement plant would bedisproportionate in scale to other elements of the regional landscape," itwrites. "The proposed cement plant would be a highly dominant visualelement."

Among the organizations that have joined Friends of Hudson in fighting theplant are the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the PreservationLeague of New York State, which has put Hudson and Columbia County on itslist as one of the seven most-endangered sites in the state.

Perhaps most important, the plant will be visible from Olana, thePersian-style mansion a few miles away that the artist Frederic Edwin Churchbuilt for himself on a mountain overlooking the Hudson.

"Because Olana is a national landmark, it has protections that are notafforded to other historic homes," explains Sara Griffen, Olana's director.Even though the plant can't be seen from the house itself, "it is the entire250 acres that is a national landmark," Griffen adds. "The plant will beseen from multiple places."

Some of the plant's supporters have tried to argue that nature and industryhave always coexisted on the Hudson. In fact, the painters of the HudsonRiver School simply painted out the river's nineteenth-century factories tomake their works properly Edenic and salable to city folk. Kirk Varnedoedoesn't buy the argument.

"You try painting these towers out of the landscape," he says. "Please.Comparing nineteenth-century industry on the Hudson to what this plant is,is like comparing the Wright brothers' flyer to the Mars probe. It's acompletely different order of magnitude."Adds Donald Westlake, the mystery writer and another Columbia Countyweekender, "This plant is a return to the wrong nineteenth century."

One might wonder where governor George Pataki, who has made environmentalprotection, and the protection of the Hudson Valley in particular, acornerstone of his administration's record, stands on all this. Statecomptroller and Pataki gubernatorial opponent Carl McCall has come outagainst the plant. And Connecticut attorney general Richard Blumenthal, aPataki ally in fighting coal-burning power plants in the Midwest, wrote avehement letter of opposition to the plant to the administrative-law judgehearing the case. (Some of the plant's most vocal opponents live downwind inthe Berkshires and northern Connecticut).

"He's the ultimate arbiter if we get permits or not," says Lochbrunner ofPataki.

Even though opponents of the plant have tried to ambush the governor atpublic appearances, thus far he's taken no stand on the issue. "I put myhand over his and said, 'Please, Mr. Pataki, don't let them put up the St.Lawrence cement plant. It'll destroy everything we have here,' " recallsGinger Feldman, a plant opponent and self-described little old lady intennis shoes. "He was dismissive."

Peter Constantakes, a spokesman for the New York State Department ofEnvironmental Conservation, says it would be premature for the governor totake a stand on the issue. "He's letting the process go as it's intended,"Constantakes says.

The opposition vows to fight the project even if Pataki supports it. TheColumbia Action Network, an opposition group in the northern part of thecounty, raised $20,000 to fight the plant at a single cocktail party. Thehors d'oeuvre, including tasty inside-out BLTs (cherry tomatoes stuffed withbacon, mayo, and lettuce), were prepared by Ruth Reichl, the editor ofGourmet.

"I cooked the bacon for that," boasts Jerry Croghan, a psychotherapist with aweekend home near Reichl's in Spencertown. He adds, "The cement plantunderestimated how much money there is up here against it. People don't domoney up here the way they do in the Hamptons. They don't show off theirhomes. But they can write checks and write checks and write checks."


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