Cry Them A River

Photo: Greg Miller

The hardy, disease-resistant remnants of Edith Wharton’s New York-Delanos,Livingstons, Elliotts – together with a healthy infusion of newer though noless cultured blood gathered at Midwood, the philanthropist Joan K.Davidson’s estate overlooking the Hudson River a hundred miles north of thecity, on a recent unimprovable spring afternoon.

But the conversation wasn’t just about the excellence of the host, thecharming scruffiness of the landscape (copies of a September 2001 storyabout Midwood in Martha Stewart Living were available on porch tables), orsummer plans. The most animated discussion was reserved for – of allincongruous and intolerable things – a cement plant that a Swiss multinationalproposes to plop right in the middle of God’s country a few miles north ofhere. The facility – less a single factory than a massive industrial city, tohear Davidson’s guests tell it – threatens to spoil everyone’s views, freshair, and weekend well-being.

As the Hudson flowed majestically to sea beneath them and Bill Cunningham,the Times society photographer, scurried about snapping pictures, the guestssnacked on shad and lemonade, and talked about the plant.

“Wouldn’t it be terrible if this idyllic paradise were ruined by a Swissglobal polluter?” sighed Alexandra Anderson-Spivy, an art critic andanti-plant activist, as she pointed to the waters of the Hudson glimmeringin the afternoon sun below. “These are the scenes that Cole and Churchpainted. This is the birthplace of American art.”

“We spent a lot of time on the chemical pollution of the river and made someprogress, and now we’re about to rape the view,” added Kirk Varnedoe, theformer chief curator of the Museum of Modern Art and just one of the manymembers of the city’s cultural establishment fighting the plant. Othersinclude the artist William Wegman, Annie Leibovitz, Gourmet editor RuthReichl, and musician Patti Smith. “This would be an eyesore of the mostastonishing dimensions. And furthermore, what it would do to pollute the airis terrible.”

The plant, with its 406-foot smokestack, has sparked something of a class warbetween the locals and the weekenders here in Columbia County, which overthe past decade has seen an infusion of moneyed Manhattanites in search of alower-keyed alternative to the Hamptons. Travel any road in the county andyou can see red STOP THE PLANT or blue SUPPORT THE PLANT signs on frontlawns.

“We had signs in front of our house that got taken down so often I just gaveup,” says an opponent of the plant who asked that his name not be used. “Idon’t want whoever did it to break my windows.”

“It’s really sad,” says a local antiques dealer. “Every dilapidated house hasa blue sign in front of it. And every beautiful, well-maintained house has ared sign in front of it.”

Most of Columbia County’s elected officials are for the plant. Upstate can’tsurvive on bed-and-breakfasts alone, they say. And to hear St. LawrenceCement, the company that wants to build the plant, tell it, the factory willbe, if not quite a thing of beauty, at least built with great sensitivity toits hallowed surroundings. Not only will it be state-of-the-art andvirtually nonpolluting, they say, but it will be painted colors so discreetthat it will virtually vanish into the verdant landscape.

“We worked with some people who did camouflage work for the stealthaircraft,” boasts Phillip Lochbrunner, the project’s manager.

Indeed, the company’s claims extend even further – into the counterintuitive.They assert that the plant will actually make the air cleaner.

They’re able to make this startling claim with impressively straight facesbecause the proposed plant will replace an aging sixties cement plant St.Lawrence owns on the other side of the Hudson in Catskill, New York, whichleaves something to be desired by today’s more exacting air-pollutionstandards.

“I thought this was a no-brainer when we first started,” says Dan Odescalchi,a St. Lawrence public-relations consultant. “It would be a net environmentalbenefit and stabilize the local economy.”

“St. Lawrence Cement felt they were coming into a Petticoat Junction-typecounty where they’d be welcome just because they have a shiny logo,”contends Patrick Manning, the area’s state assemblyman. “But there are somepeople who felt strongly about having their side heard.”

Petticoat Junction, however, never looked like Midwood. “The conversation isso emotional and heated,” observes Rudy Wurlitzer, a screenwriter and guestat the party. “It’s become a resentment of new people. It’s a classstruggle.”

Wurlitzer has tried to fathom the local support for the project. By thecompany’s own admission, he says, the new $330 million facility (payingproperty tax on $25 million) will generate virtually no new jobs, sincethey’ll simply move their existing work force from the old plant across theriver to the new one.

“They have faith in the patriarchal corporate entity,” he says, describingthe company’s nonstop butterflies-and-flowers ad campaign in the local newspapers as “Orwellian.”

However, after ticking off some of the things St. Lawrence has done to winthe locals’ affections – supporting the town Little League team and a localtheater troupe, constructing a pavilion at the new municipal park, andthrowing barbecues and picnics – Wurlitzer pauses to examine the guests atDavidson’s. “They’re both, in terms of class structures, equally rigid, in away,” he admits.

If St. Lawrence, which is majority-owned by a Swiss multinational calledHolcim, wins the day, conveyer belts will transport raw materials two milesinland from the banks of the Hudson River to the coal-fired plant located ina limestone quarry larger than the adjacent city of Hudson. The finishedproduct will then be transported back to the river, to be loaded on giant,800-foot barges.

“There aren’t very many sites in the entire Northeast where you’ve got thecombination of limestone and this water access,” explains Phil Lochbrunner.”As a matter of fact, you’re kind of looking at them.”

Lochbrunner, 49, who has been in the cement business since he was a junior atSMU, brushes off the environmentalists’ air-pollution worries with blandbrilliance. The reason the company is fighting administrative-law judgeHelene Goldberger’s ruling to hold an adjudicatory hearing – in effect puttingthe project on trial – isn’t because they’re afraid of exposing theirclean-air claims to scrutiny, he says. They simply see no point in delayingbringing a healthier environment to the public.

“This ought to be a great story,” he says.

Gerry Simons, the crusty, likable chairman of Columbia County’s Board ofSupervisors, agrees. Last year, the supervisors voted 22 to 1 in support ofthe plant. Simons spent 30 years working at a Kimberly-Clark factory. He’sunimpressed that 35 of 36 doctors at the local hospital, less than a milefrom the plant, issued a resolution opposing it.

“This is where the rock is,” he says with a fatalistic shrug.

The supervisor aroused a certain amount of controversy when he had employeesof a publicly funded agency perform a demographic breakdown on the pro- andanti-plant petitions delivered to his office. The results apparentlyreassured him that the people, at least the people who can name theirsupervisor and vote locally, supported the plant.

“We looked at where the names came from and found most of the ‘in favor’names came from locals,” he reports. “The opposition names were from partlylocal, partly New York City, and partly as far away as California andOregon.

“In my town, in 1974, I had 45 farms shipping milk,” he goes on. “Today Ihave five farms shipping milk. These blue-collar workers are looking forjobs. I don’t think the normal blue-collar worker is probably anywhere nearas financially well-off as the weekender.”

The plant’s opponents warn of a massive exodus of second-home owners and aresulting plunge in real-estate values if the plant gets built. The antiquesdealers who have resurrected the city of Hudson, a mile downwind from theplant, will fail; Columbia County’s blossoming art scene will wither away;the boutique farmers making award-winning goat cheeses and growing designervegetables for New York City restaurants will depart.

Marlene Brody, who raises Thoroughbred horses in Ghent, a small town tenmiles from the proposed plant (her late husband was Jerome Brody, the headof Restaurant Associates and the owner of Gallagher’s Steak House and theGrand Central Oyster Bar), is one who says she’ll move. She’s been rallyingother horse farms in the area to fight the plant.

“How can you raise an athlete with that stuff in the air?” she wonders. “Ithink the plant would bring Hudson to what it was when we moved here in thesummer of ‘72. It was slumsville.”

St. Lawrence hasn’t been entirely able to resist the temptation to tap thelocals’ resentment of the weekenders (though the plant also has asignificant number of local opponents). A mailing sent by a group calledHudson Valley Environmental/Economic Coalition, which has ties to thecompany, featured a cartoon of a fat cat clutching a wad of cash in one handand an overstuffed bank bag in the other.

“Don’t let a group of millionaires from New York City deny Columbia Countygood paying jobs and a stronger economy,” it said.

Dan Odescalchi has confessed to helping some of the plant’s supporters craftletters to the local papers. “Some people felt the entire argument wasunbalanced, with most of the comment coming from people who are morecomfortable expressing themselves in writing,” he told the Independent, acounty newspaper.

One pro-plant letter in the Register-Star, another local paper, ran under theheadline DON’T LISTEN TO RICH FOLKS; THEY DON’T NEED THE JOBS. The followingday, the paper ran a rather terse correction: “Edward Ogden of Philmont sayshe did not write the letter that appeared above his name on Page A5 inThursday’s edition of the Register-Star.”

The plant’s adversaries take a sort of masochistic pleasure in pointing outthe irony of vilifying them as millionaires when the person who stands togain the most if the project goes through is Thomas Schmidheiny, a Swissbillionaire and the chairman of Holcim.

“My understanding is that polluting, coal-burning cement plants are illegalin Switzerland,” says writer Peter Biskind, a full-time Columbia Countyresident. “They’re building the kind of plant that would be illegal in theirown country. They’re turning Columbia County into a Third World country.”

One weekender sees the locals’ support for the project as a failure ofAmerican public education. “I think we’re generally better-educated and moresophisticated than the locals,” he says, explaining why they can’t seethrough St. Lawrence’s P.R. offensive. “I don’t want to discuss theintelligence of the locals; that’s terrible. But look at the schools inColumbia County. They’re awful.

“Even if their educations aren’t Ivy League-caliber, the locals are shrewdenough to detect inconsistencies in some of the opponents’ arguments. “Thepeople opposed to it drive these SUVs that get eight or nine miles to agallon,” says Thomas Fleming, the librarian at Hudson High School and aplant supporter. “You drive up Warren Street and you see these Navigatorsand Mountaineers, yet they’re opposed to the plant. You should be coming ina little car if you’re that concerned about the environment.”

Tom Koulos, a retired salesman and plant supporter, has made something of asecond career for himself writing letters to the editors of the local papersthat take aim at aesthetes who make reference in their letters to theembarrassment of contemplating such a magnificent eyesore at the same momentas the Tate in London is mounting “American Sublime,” a celebration ofHudson River School painting.

“If we don’t have cement to build houses to keep us warm in winter, whathappens?” Koulos demands. “People right now are very scared down in thecity. They’re trying to get the heck out of there. They’re coming up herehoping they can get away from things. You can’t get away from life. Youcan’t escape reality.”

One of the more intriguing – if completely unconfirmed – rumors floating amongthe plant’s better-connected opponents has David Rockefeller, one ofColumbia County’s largest landowners, taking aside Schmidheiny, whom heknows, and talking sense to him, billionaire to billionaire.

one important factor St. Lawrence has in its favor is a powerful nostalgiafor cement in these parts. Back in the forties and fifties, two cementplants employed well over a thousand people (they closed in the seventies).Carmine Pierro, an aide to Hudson mayor Richard Scalera, who stronglysupports the plant, remembers riding his bike out to one of the plants afterschool in the late fifties and collecting money for his Little League team.

“People gave you nickels and dimes,” he recalls. “These guys would give youdollar bills. They were the top-paying jobs.”

There’s even an element of romance to the cement dust people would discoveron their cars when they woke up in the morning. Back then, CharlieSchneider, a local farmer and plant supporter, hardly had to lime hisfields.

“The pH of the soil stayed higher because there was dust in the air,” heremembers. “Roofs didn’t have to be painted so much. They got a coating ofcement dust on them.”

“There’s a feeling the good old days are just around the corner,” observesthe poet John Ashbery, who owns a Victorian in the middle of Hudson. “But intowns like Hudson, they’ll never really come back. When the malls camearound in the sixties, it spelled doom for most of the stores in Hudson.”

Adds Rob Makas, another local opponent, who manages a gourmet-food storeowned by someone from the city, “People make fun of me. They say, ‘Oh, what?Are you afraid of a little cement dust?’ “

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.”

Cry Them A River