January 3, 2014
Air Date: January 3, 2014
What to Expect in 2014
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From Keystone XL to Obama’s carbon regulations, 2014 promises to be a crucial year for the environment. Vermont Law School has compiled a list of important environmental stories to watch in the New Year, and Professor Pat Parenteau discusses the highlights with host, Steve Curwood. (11:55)
Beyond the Headlines – Environmental Coverage on the Rise
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In this trip beyond the headlines, Peter Dykstra of Daily Climate and ehn.org talks with host Steve Curwood about the state of environmental media coverage and some important anniversaries for 2014. (04:40)
The Birth of the Clean Water Act
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Over forty years ago, when rivers caught fire and fish washed up dead by the thousands, Americans came together to demand “swimmable” “fishable” waterways for all. 1972 marks the creation of the Act that changed the way water pollution is managed in America. Reporter Ashley Ahearn talks with William Ruckelshaus, the first administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency who oversaw the initial implementation of the Clean Water Act. (14:00)
Storm King/ Jim Metzner
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Nearly half a century ago, a remarkable battle over plans to build an electricity pumping station on the Hudson River launched a new branch of the law - environmental law. The facility was planned for Storm King, an iconic mountain known as the gateway to the Hudson Highlands. Producer Jim Metzner recounts the epic story. (16:25)
Show Credits and Funders
HOST: Steve Curwood
GUESTS: Pat Parenteau, Peter Dykstra, Bill Ruckelshaus
REPORTERS: Ashley Ahearn, Jim Metzner
CURWOOD: From Public Radio International, this is Living on Earth.
CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood. In 2013 the planet passed a sobering environmental landmark - 400 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere. But that doesn't mean the climate prospects for 2014 are dire.
PARENTEAU: Here's the good news: our carbon emissions are down. Part of that is the result of closing of a number of dirty old coal-fired power plants, but actually a lot of the credit goes to the expansion of renewable energy through wind and solar.
CURWOOD: Also, looking back at an environmental success story of the past - the battle to save on Storm King.
DUNWELL: It was a mountain that had been painted by the Hudson River School of painters, it was where George Washington had fought major battles to win the revolutionary war - it was a mountain that had incredible significance.
CURWOOD: That and more this week on Living on Earth. Stick around.
[NEWSBREAK MUSIC: Boards Of Canada “Zoetrope” from “In A Beautiful Place Out In The Country” (Warp Records 2000)]
ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from Stonyfield Farm. Makers of organic yogurt, smoothies and more.
What to Expect in 2014
CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Boston, this is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. In the 23 years Living on Earth has been on the air, there has been a growing awareness of the importance and urgency of environmental issues.
As we start a new year, we thought for this week’s program we’d take time to look ahead to some of the decisions that could have massive impacts on life on this planet. And here to help us is Vermont Law School Professor Pat Parenteau. He and his colleagues have put together a list of issues and decisions to watch for 2014 and he joins us now on the line. Happy new year and welcome to Living on Earth, Professor.
PARENTEAU: Thank you, Steve. It’s good to be here.
CURWOOD: So let’s start at the top. What’s number one on your list, Professor Parenteau?
PARENTEAU: We listed the decision on the Keystone XL pipeline as the number one issue for 2014. The President has indicated he will make that decision, and, of course, there has been a tremendous amount of attention and controversy around the pipeline, but we think in light of the fact we just passed this critical threshold of 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that scientists are concerned about, we singled out the Keystone pipeline as a discrete decision that implicates where we go on climate change.
CURWOOD: OK. What does your crystal ball say Mr. Obama does?
PARENTEAU: You know, it’s a really close call. I think it’s 60-40 in favor of the President disapproving the pipeline, but you’ll sure get an argument from a lot of people about that. Obviously, a large number of supporters of the pipeline, including labor unions who see that at least in the short term some construction jobs. The analysis of what the pipeline would do for employment in the long run is quite modest, but the pipeline really is not going to do apparently what the American public believes it will do, which is give us, significant energy independence from imported oil from the Middle East and elsewhere. The other thing that the President said, of course, is he will not approve it if it will significantly exacerbate the climate change problem, which it will do. The extraction of this very heavy oil from very tight sands is extremely carbon intensive, so it’s a definitely a major step in the wrong direction if what we’re trying to do is reduce the effects of climate change.
CURWOOD: Pat, now, an important political story for 2013 was a change to the filibuster rule in the Senate that effectively now means that President Obama can appoint who he wants to most federal court positions, also some administrative positions, and I understand this really affects the Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington when it comes to environmental regulations. Can you explain that for me?
PARENTEAU: Right. That court, the DC Circuit, reviews nearly all of the major environmental regulations that are issued by EPA and other agencies. The court has taken a rightward drift of late. It’s evenly balanced between Republican appointees and Democratic appointees, but it’s environmental decisions have definitely run against environmental positions, shall we say, over the past several years. Obama’s appointments to the court will probably rebalance the court somewhat, and I would predict, the court would be more favorably disposed towards some of these environmental regulations than the current makeup of the court.
CURWOOD: Now what are the environmental regulations coming down the pipe that are the hottest, as far as you’re concerned?
PARENTEAU: The biggest ones, I would say, in terms of climate change, for sure, are EPA’s proposed rules involving both new sources of carbon pollution from power plants, and then after that, regulations coming in June of 2014 that will apply to all existing power plants. That is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. The coal-fired power plants represent the largest portion. That set of rules the EPA is working on now, which will eventually have to be reviewed by the DC circuit and perhaps by the US Supreme Court, those are the most important rules from a climate standpoint to keep an eye on.
CURWOOD: So what are the odds that the EPA can stay on track with those rules?
PARENTEAU: Well, the President has committed himself to getting these rules finished during his second term. EPA is on a schedule to do that, but it’s a pretty tight schedule. There’s, of course, political opposition to the EPA moving forward, but right now, the agency is in the process of conducting public meetings and what they call listening sessions. We won’t see the actual details of the rule until June of 2014. There’s tremendous flexibility in the legal provision EPA is using under the Clean Air Act, and the big question is, how much flexibility will they give, too, to the states, for example, adopt things like the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative we have here in the northeast.
That collection of northeast states has asked EPA to basically endorse their approach. They have a cap-and-trade program for emissions from power plants, that’s working quite well. On the west coast, California, Oregon, and Washington have signed an agreement with British Columbia to create a regional market for carbon out there. So already we’re seeing in the states some pretty creative ways of addressing carbon pollution from power plants. I think EPA is going to try to accommodate those initiatives and not frustrate them .
CURWOOD: So, where do you see natural gas going in 2014? It was very, very cheap in 2011. It’s gotten a little more expensive, but it’s also generating a fair amount of controversy.
PARENTEAU: Yes, gas is 50 percent less carbon-intensive when it’s burned than coal. The problem with gas, from a climate standpoint, is in what we call the life-cycle analysis of the entire gas extraction production and transportation system. That’s a very controversial subject. EPA had a chance last year to set a standard for methane emissions from fracking and other oil and gas development. It declined to do that. It adopted a stringent standard for what are called volatile organic compounds which will have as a secondary benefit reducing methane from new wells, but EPA did not adopt a standard for existing wells which there are some, if you can believe it, 800,000 wells in the country used for oil and gas production.
So, one of the big problems with gas being what’s called a transition fuel, some would call it a bridge fuel to a cleaner energy source is, if the emissions from the process of methane are not significantly reduced, then it could offset the benefits of gas in relation to coal. So a big question that we raised looking ahead to 2014 is will EPA adopt more stringent rules to both monitor how much methane is being emitted from these sources and impose stricter controls. Several states have sued EPA to require such controls, so it will be very interesting to see what EPA does in that lawsuit.
CURWOOD: What questions, aside from fugitive methane, do you see involving fracking being addressed in 2014?
PARENTEAU: There’s a lot of direct environmental impacts of fracking. There’s concerns, of course, about groundwater contamination. There’s an enormous amount of water use. Each one of these wells uses five million gallons of water a day. EPA has estimated we’re going to need another 600,000 wells to extract all the known reserves of shale gas. There’s potential for blowouts. There’s even been some explosions at fracking sites. So there’s a whole range of environmental issues around fracking that really deserve much greater attention.
But the biggest problem, I think, with a heavy reliance on gas and fracking, is it creates a massive investment in a fossil fuel infrastructure - gas is still a fossil fuel - at the expense of truly clean sources like wind and solar, efficiency improvements and other things, so if gas has the effect of displacing or retarding the development of really clean sources of energy, it will probably be a net-loss for the climate.
CURWOOD: So on your list, you also have the farm bill. 2014 is where we’re at, but the last time the farm bill was actually rewritten was back in 2008. What are the chances that we’ll see a truly new farm bill?
PARENTEAU: Well, the farm bill is one of the most important and probably least understood environmental laws that we have on the books. It’s hard for me to judge exactly what would happen in Congress these days. The odds are probably in favor of a farm bill ultimately being approved. The big question from the standpoint of environmental concerns, again in regard to climate and other issues, is what are called the “conservation provisions” of the farm bill. We’ve had provisions requiring farmers to protect wetlands, to reduce soil erosion, to create wildlife habitat, and those provisions are at risk because the farm bill that’s being discussed certainly in the House has basically reduced the funding for those provisions enormously while increasing the amount of subsidies for crop insurance. The irony there is the reason you need greater crop insurance is in part due to the effects of climate change. We’re losing the ability of our farmlands to reduce the effects of climate change, at the same time, we’re increasing payments to farmers for the damage that climate change is doing. So there’s something wrong with this picture.
CURWOOD: Professor Parenteau, before you go, can you give me a good news story for 2014?
PARENTEAU: Yes, here’s the good news. Our carbon emissions are down. Part of that is the result of closing a number of dirty coal-fired power plants. Some of the credit for that goes to natural gas, but a lot of the credit actually goes to the expansion of renewable energy, through wind and solar. The price of wind and solar is coming down, wind and solar had its greatest growth in the last year, not only in the United States but worldwide. We’re seeing reduction in the consumption of oil through fuel efficiency, standards that have been put in place for automobiles, for heavy vehicles and other things. We’re seeing states like California, Oregon and Washington, taking the lead on adopting strong measures to reduce carbon emissions from their industries. Oregon is considering a carbon tax. British Columbia has had a carbon tax now for several years that’s quite popular and has been renewed. So when you look around, you can find examples of success stories dealing with climate, dealing with other environmental problems. Hopefully, those success stories will spread to our national government, and we get a much broader and more comprehensive approach to these problems.
CURWOOD: Pat Parenteau is a Professor at Vermont Law School. Thanks for joining us, Pat, and happy new year.
PARENTEAU: And same to you, Steve. Thanks a lot.
Patrick Parenteau’s page
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CURWOOD: Coming up...there’s a bit of good news for the endangered species known as environmental media. Keep listening to Living on Earth.
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Beyond the Headlines – Environmental Coverage on the Rise
CURWOOD It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood. Time now for a new year’s check-in with online publisher Peter Dykstra. He and his team check out thousands of English language media outlets every day for the best stories to compile in DailyClimate.org and Environmental Health News, that's EHN.org. Hi there, Peter.
DYKSTRA: Hi, Steve.
CURWOOD: So, what’ve you got for us this week?
DYKSTRA: Well, we’re going to do the good news, bad news thing, and covering the environment for as much as you have, you know that when you have good news and bad news it’s really good news, because sometimes there’s nothing but bad news out there. We’ll start with what you and I do for a living, environmental journalism.
CURWOOD: Good news about environmental journalism?
DYKSTRA: Absolutely. Every year since 2010, our folks at dailyclimate.org look at the total number of climate change stories that are published around the world. Every year, that number has gotten lower and lower, but this year we’re seeing a big turnaround. We tracked 5,000 English language publications around the world, and there’a really healthy jump and interest in covering the environment this year, maybe by as much as 20 percent.
CURWOOD: Why the big jump?
DYKSTRA: The big jump, it has a lot to do with several things. There’s been a crescendo of interest in energy stories this year - a lot of reporting on fracking, the alleged war on coal, the amount of coal that’s getting ready for export, the pipeline stories, there have been several nuclear plants shut down in the US this year, and, of course, wind and solar has gotten a lot of attention as well. But we’re also looking at a trend in increased local coverage of local climate impacts. We do a series called, “Climate at Your Doorstep,” and there’s a real turning point out there because when you look at climate change, we’re no longer talking about theoreticals, we’re no longer talking about projections and climate models and what we’re going to look like 50 years from now. We’re looking at what’s happening now with climate change.
CURWOOD: And you said there was some bad news.
DYKSTRA: Of course there’s bad news, Steve; there’s always bad news. But this time it focuses on two major news organizations, the New York Times and Reuters. They both took heat this past year for cutbacks in environment and climate coverage. The Times eliminated its environment editor position at the beginning of 2013, then they shut down their Green Blog. They took a lot of heat, they took heat from their own public editor who said the moves were a mistake.
And over at Reuters, there was a reporter who quit in anger and publicly criticized the leadership of the wire service for discouraging coverage of climate change. And we took a look at what was happening by the numbers. The Times, there’s been a modest decrease in the volume of environment coverage at The Times. There’s been a much bigger decrease at Reuters in their coverage of climate change.
CURWOOD: So, Peter, what are some anniversaries coming up this year in terms of politics and the law?
DYKSTRA: One thing that might serve as a model for more success in dealing with environmental issues are two global treaties that are both celebrating anniversaries this year.
The Antarctic Treaty is 55-years-old. It’s successfully kept Antarctica free of environmental abuse, of territorial conflicts between nations. And the Montreal Protocol is 25-years-old, and for a quarter century, it’s helped heal the ozone hole, it’s led to reductions in chemicals like CFCs that damage the ozone layer. The ozone layer, of course, protects us from harmful radiation from the sun. Those chemicals like CFCs are also potent greenhouse gases, so the Montreal Protocol is actually helping solve two problems. Scientists say the ozone hole is on its way to recovery. You want to know the most remarkable thing about the success of these two treaties?
CURWOOD: Of course, Peter.
DYKSTRA: The Antarctic Treaty came together in the middle of the Cold War, when people like Dwight Eisenhower and Nikita Khruschev were dominating world politics. They pulled the Antarctic Treaty together. The Montreal Protocol, a quarter century ago, was hammered out by people like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher and “Tear-down-this-wall” Mister Gorbachev.
CURWOOD: And the moral of the story is if they did it, maybe we can figure climate out?
DYKSTRA: Precisely. That’s a hope and something to look forward to in the coming year, and happy new year to everybody...but let me mention one more final thing about our EHN archives.
CURWOOD: This a commercial pitch, huh?
DYKSTRA: Yes, but it’s a commercial pitch for you because if you go to EHN.org and look at the 425,000 news stories in there, one of the most frequent contributors is a gentleman named Steve Curwood of Living on Earth.
CURWOOD: [LAUGHS] Thank you, Peter. Happy new year!
DYKSTRA: Happy new year, Sir!
- Peter Dykstra is the editor of the Daily Climate
- and Environmental Health News
- Follow him on Twitter
[MUSIC: Professor Longhair “Mean Old World” from Fess: The Professor Longhair Anthology Vol 2 (Rounder Records 2003)]
The Birth of the Clean Water Act
CURWOOD: Well, as Peter Dykstra just mentioned, Republican administrations helped hammer out the Antarctic treaty, and the Montreal Protocol. Republicans have also implemented some of the most notable US environmental laws. One of the most successful is the Clean Water Act of 1972. At the time, two thirds of America's rivers were considered polluted, with raw sewage pouring into many of them and Ohio's Cuyahoga River famously catching fire. A bipartisan majority in Congress voted to clean up the waterways. Ashley Ahearn of the northwest media collaborative EarthFix spoke with the man who helped engineer and then administer that Act - William Ruckelshaus.
AHEARN: He was the first Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency back when it was created under the Nixon administration. He’s had a long career in law, business and politics. And now he lives in Seattle, where I sat down with him in his office.
RUCKELSHAUS: Thanks for being here.
AHEARN: Take me back to the time of the creation of the Clean Water Act - what was the feeling at the time that made the EPA and made the Clean Water Act necessary?
RUCKELSHAUS: Well the sentiment was an explosion of public concern about the environment. It was caused by a number of factors, Rachel Carson’s book which was written in 1962, had a cumulative effect that was quite pronounced in the country at the time. We had flammable rivers, you already mentioned the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland.
We had people in Denver wanting to see the mountains and people in Los Angeles wanting to see one another and it was a terrible time. I remember the first time I moved to Washington and the air was brown as I’d go to work in the morning. There was no industry in Washington at the time, that was all automobile pollution. So, people not only heard and saw problems of pollution on television every night, they witnessed it on the way to work, so it really created a demand that something be done.
What people have forgotten is that the Clean Water Act was vetoed by President Nixon; that veto was overridden overwhelmingly in both houses of Congress by both parties, even though the election was just two weeks away, and President Nixon was just 20 points ahead of Senator McGovern, his opponent. At the time still, his own party overturned that veto overwhelmingly.
AHEARN: What was that like? What were your conversations like with Nixon?
RUCKELSHAUS: Oh, they were so wonderful.
RUCKELSHAUS: I had sent him a letter prior to his decision as to whether to sign or veto the bill spelling out why I thought he should sign it, why I was in support of it. His principal concern was that he had asked for five billion dollars to devote to the sewage treatment plant grant program at the federal level. And they’d put seven billion in the bill and that got him quite agitated – he thought that was too much money. So he vetoed it. And what the override of that veto really showed was the overwhelming public support that existed at that time for cleaning up the water and the air and handling all kinds of environmental problems.
AHEARN: I want to play some tape for you that might sound familiar - it’s from the NBC evening news archives from 1971:
[ARCHIVE TAPE: William Ruckelshaus, President Nixon’s head man on environment was on the stand today before Senator Muskie of Maine who has dwelled on this issue himself. They were taking about clean water. How long is it going to take? I’m going to have to acquire some kind of national deadlines in order to ensure there’s no inequality of treatment of this between regions – the states just don't respond with equal speed. I think that’s right. Each industry and the states must be placed on a deadline. And it’s through this method that we can get uniform treatment across the country of putting everybody on the same deadline.]
AHEARN: That guy sounds familiar.
RUCKELSHAUS: He doesn’t sound familiar to me!
RUCKELSHAUS: Muskie did.
AHEARN: That deadline you were talking about ended up being 1985. There was supposed to be “zero discharge of pollutants into navigable waters by 1985” is the quote. And, quote, “swimmable, fishable waterways by 1983.” Looking back on it, was that a reasonable deadline?
RUCKELSHAUS: No. It was not. Not anymore than the 1975 deadline for clean air throughout the country was reasonable. The Congress believed that setting deadlines, even if they were somewhat arbitrary and not likely to be achieved was necessary both to demonstrate the urgency of the need for the problem to be addressed, and at the same time maximize the pressure on the administrative branch to get moving to show improvement.
I can remember testifying in front of Senator Muskie that if we stopped doing everything that we were doing in the government we couldn’t achieve these deadlines. And the problem with them was not the sincerity with which they were being suggested by the Congress, the problem with it was you doomed an agency like EPA to failure before it starts because we can’t get there in that period of time.
It’s taken us hundreds of years to get where we are today in terms of pollution. You just simply can’t clean it up overnight. That was always capable of being portrayed as dragging your feet and not doing the right thing. In my view, it was just a statement of reality that we couldn’t do it in that period of time.
AHEARN: So, the Act passes, you’ve got this new power and the money to make the changes and build the infrastructure. What happens next, what’s going through your head?
RUCKELSHAUS: Well, it was a marvelous opportunity, in my view, to try to show the American people that their demand – their legitimate demand that something be done about a societal problem – would trigger the right kind of response from government and it was up to us at EPA to do the best job we could to respond to that legitimate concern, that was affecting public health and the environment.
We had less than a third of the cities in the countries providing adequate sewage treatment – in some cases, no sewage treatment. The sewage was just going directly into waterways and that was causing water borne diseases, it was causing all kinds of problems. We just had ignored it, essentially from the beginning, and this was a massive effort on the part of the federal government to deal with this problem.
AHEARN: What would have happened if we hadn’t had the Clean Water Act? What did it allow you to do?
RUCKELSHAUS: That’s a very good question. The way to measure progress is not just against where we were when we started versus where we are today, but where we were when we started and where we would be today had we done nothing. There are thousands of miles of waterways that are much cleaner today than they were 40 years ago as a result of the treatment being put in or discharges that were going in that have been corrected. And as I say, that doesn’t mean we’re home free, we’ve still go work to do and always will have. But we’re a lot better off today than we were 40 years ago.
AHEARN: What are you seeing now when you say there’s more work to do? What would be at the top of your list if you were in charge today?
RUCKELSHAUS: The biggest problem by far is what’s called non-point source pollution. The point sources are water discharged from sewage treatment plants or from major industrial facilities, and those were the things that got the most attention when we started because that was 85 percent of the problem. That’s what EPA estimated was true. The other kinds of problems are runoff from city streets, runoff from suburban lands, from farmlands, from rural lands, and those are so-called non-point source pollutions, it doesn’t all come from one single source. And the situation is just reversed today.
The EPA’s current estimates is that 85 percent of the problem is non-point source pollution. That’s a much harder problem to get at because it isn’t a single plant or a single city that’s discharging. You can put those cities, which we’ve done, and industrial facilities on permits. Permits spell out what they have to do to keep the water from being polluted from their discharge. They have self-reporting requirements if they violate any of the terms of the permit they can either be fined substantially or be put in jail if they violate on purpose the requirements of the permit itself.
So that problem is largely under social control. I’m not saying that it’s gone, we still have to stay with it, but it’s largely under social control. The non-point source problem is all of the rest of us. That’s the ones that we’re all convinced we’re not doing any of this – this is all some terrible person or all some terrible industry or city that I have no control over. But getting people to manage their land in such a way, getting people to control their lives in such a way that they don’t contribute to this non-point source pollution problem is proving to be very difficult.
AHEARN: I want to talk politics here for a minute. It seems like in recent years, Congress has had a really hard time reaching any sort of bipartisan agreement on anything, really. Let alone environmental issues. But 40 years ago, when the Clean Water Act came into being, things looked different. Why is the environment a partisan issue now, and how do Republicans get back into the game of protecting the environment?
RUCKELSHAUS: Well, they’re not. Those Republicans in the House, in particular, though it’s probably true in the Senate as well, but the ones in the House have passed a lot of laws recently through the House, but not through the Senate, that would take authority away from EPA to regulate this kind of stuff, that would even abolish EPA in the case of some of those laws… are a result of people coming to believe that the regulatory system itself is imposing unfair burdens on industry, on the American people. So that when a Republican politician rails against the EPA for excessive regulation, they don’t get the same kind of feedback they would have gotten 40 years ago when these laws passed unanimously by their predecessors in Congress.
And when they asked EPA why are you doing what you’re doing, because the very body I’m testifying in front of told me to do this 40 years ago, it’s still in the law, you haven’t amended the law. If you don’t want me to enforce the law, then don’t put it in the law that I’m charged with implementing. And I’ve seen the current Congress say that any regulation that costs over 100 million dollars a year, we should review as to whether or not it should go out in the form in which it’s been promulgated.
Well, I’m going to be tempted to give them that authority and you go ahead and answer the questions from your constituents about the impact of doing this on their health, on their environment, and see how much you like making these kinds of decisions. They wouldn’t last six months under those conditions. Now, it will never happen, they’ll never get that kind of authority to go back, but the difference today from where we were 40 years ago is where public opinion is. If public opinion were as intolerant of what’s happening to our environment and our public health today as they were 40 years ago, you wouldn’t have a partisan split on this issue. There was almost unanimity that something be done about it.
AHEARN: So, what changed?
RUCKELSHAUS: I think a number of things changed. Maybe the most important thing is success. The EPA may well be a victim of its own success. We don't see the same kinds of visible pollution problems today that we did. We don't have flammable rivers anymore and we don't have smog that’s so awful that you can’t even see one another. That was the situation back in the ’60s when the public’s concern began to express itself.
We still have problems today; they tend to be more invisible. They tend to be things that you can’t smell, touch and feel the way you could 40 years ago. And that just doesn’t get public attention. You’re also going through a terrible economic time right now. And the economy, whenever the economy deteriorates, support for the environment deteriorates as well.
AHEARN: You’re a grandfather, right?
RUCKELSHAUS: Right. 12 times!
AHEARN: Wow! So, if you…
RUCKELSHAUS: That’s part of the problem.
AHEARN: (Laughs.) So if you listen to this interview with your grandkids, or if your grandkids heard this interview, what would you want to tell them about the Clean Water Act and what it meant for you and your career?
RUCKELSHAUS: Well, what I’d want them to know is that their society, their government, can be responsive in a democracy to their legitimate demands. And that where problems are identified and the government is supported by the public and serious about dealing with them, significant progress can be made. So the government isn’t always the enemy, the government is sometimes a necessary institution for dealing with problems as widespread and gross as water pollution was, and it’s an example of our country having successfully grappled with a problem.
So, don’t, as you grow older and as you mature in your understanding of the choices that we have in society, necessarily rule out a governmental solution for a problem that you have. It’s not the best way to solve all of the problems by any means, but there are some problems that we’re in it together, just like our President has said. Some problems you can solve yourself, others you have to solve together – water pollution is right up there at the top.
AHEARN: Mr. Ruckelshaus, thanks for joining me.
RUCKELSHAUS: Sure Enough. Thank you.
AHEARN: Bill Ruckelshaus was the first Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency back when it was created under the Nixon Administration.
Tag - That's Ashley Ahearn. She reports for the public broadcasting collaborative EarthFix.
- Official EPA biography of William D. “Bill” Ruckelshaus
- Information about the Ruckelshaus Center at Washington State University and the University of Washington
- Earth Fix
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CURWOOD: Coming up – looking back nearly half a century to an environmental landmark:
[MONTAGE OF KENNEDY/KING CLIPS FROM UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA SHOOTINGS 1963, BEATLES…]
CURWOOD: That image was a beloved mountain on the Hudson River called Storm King. Keep listening to Living on Earth!
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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth - I'm Steve Curwood. It all began back in 1963 - when the utility company, Consolidated Edison, announced plans to build a power plant facility on the iconic Storm King Mountain to supply New York's growing energy needs.
What it launched was a full-scale environmental battle to save this gateway to the Hudson Highlands, so treasured and so often painted by artists - think Thomas Cole and Frederick Church.
The campaigners drew on the tactics the NAACP developed for the civil rights movement, and helped launch a whole branch of environmental law. "Storm over the Mountain" presents this epic history. It's part of The Sound and Story Project, mixed and narrated by Jim Metzner.
METZNER: Consolidated Edison was the major energy company serving the New York metropolitan area. In April 1963, they proposed a drawing of the new state-of-the-art plant. ConEd boasted that the plant would satisfy all of New York city’s growing energy needs. But instead, something happened that nobody could have predicted.
METZNER: ConEd applied to the federal power commission to build a plant. ConEd, in those days, was as much a part of the industry as the utility companies they were supposed to regulate. So much so that when the chairman of ConEd announced the project he said, “no difficulties are anticipated.” Besides, ConEd was proposing a plant on the Hudson, a river whose pollution was legendary…
[NEWS CLIP: “Here’s Johnny!” But seriously, pollution on the Hudson is really bad! I saw a fisherman the other day, he turned his back for a minute and his worm made a break for it! (laughter)]
DUNWELL: Slaughterhouses dumping chicken parts into the river and blood and guts!
METZNER: Fran Dunwell, Coordinator of the Hudson River Estuary Program, grew up on the river.
DUNWELL: Communities were dumping raw sewage into the Hudson. Industries were dumping industrial chemicals. It was just an industrial canal!
METZNER: Powerplants along the Hudson were not new. ConEd’s nuclear plant was just 38 miles north of New York City. But this would be the first hydro-electric pump storage for the facility.
DUNWELL: So, the idea for the power plant was that they would pump river water up the mountain to a reservoir at the top.
METZNER: That’s 8 billion gallons up a two-mile long tunnel 40-feet in diameter.
[SOUNDS OF WATER]
DUNWELL: They would pump it up at night, when there was low demand for electricity, and they would release it from the mountaintop reservoir, down through turbines, back to the river during the day, during peak demand.
METZNER: Those 8 billion gallons of water would sit in the mountaintop reservoir, functioning like a huge storage battery. Then the water would be let loose, surging through the tunnel, generating electricity for New York City.
[MUSIC FROM ELECTRIC AD]
DUNWELL: Everybody went electric, right? In the 50s and 60s, everybody’s buying electric appliances, everybody’s heating their house… this is all basically happening during the day. Then at night, everybody goes to sleep- they turn off the dryer, they turn on the dishwasher, and there’s a low electric demand.
METZNER: It would take more energy to pump the water up the hill than the facility would actually produce, but it worked because they pumped the water up at night when their energy costs were low. And, then, they released the water during the day when demands for energy were high, and they could charge more. You have to admit, it was ingenious.
DUNWELL: No question about it, it was the wave of the future, that’s what everybody was doing… if you wanted to be top of your game in electric power, that’s what you would propose! Here you had this big river full of water, mountains on both sides, just the right height, just the right size…
METZNER: The mountain was Storm King, 3,050 feet high, about 50 miles north of New York City, and it stands like a sentinel guarding the entrance to the Hudson Highlands and some of the most celebrated scenery in the world.
DUNWELL: It was a mountain that had been painted by the Hudson River School of painters, it was where George Washington had fought major battles to win the Revolutionary War, it was a mountain that had incredible significance and that was the mountain that ConEd chose for a power plant.
METZNER: So, in May 1963, ConEd proudly announced in its annual report their plans to build the largest of its kind, state-of-the-art pump storage facility. They also published an image…
METZNER: Betsy Pew was a Hudson Valley resident and early grassroots organizer:
PEW: And then everyone stepped back and said: “Good heavens! What is this?”
DUNWELL: …They were aghast. You know, it was… how could you scar Storm King mountain?
PEW: They just took the whole side off the mountain, and people were shocked.
DUNWELL: There was no going back from that.
PEW: The published it with all great pride.
DUNWELL: When people saw this they said: We can’t let this happen.
METZNER: The beloved mountain looked like a set for a science fiction movie, a huge chunk was carved out of its side to house the power plant with a transformer and switch yard in plain view from the river.
DUNWELL: So, a handful of people got together and said: We have to form a coalition of people to fight this.
METZNER: They called themselves the Scenic Hudson Preservation Conference. A group of 12 diverse people who had in common their passion for the river’s diverse history and beauty.
DUNWELL: And, they realized that ConEd was going to have to get a license from the Federal Power Commission, and that would be the only avenue they might have to raise legal issues and fight the project.
METZNER: And so, Scenic Hudson challenged ConEd’s request for a license. The Federal Power Commission or FPC agreed that the scenic value of the Hudson was great, the public’s need for electric power, however, was greater. In 1964, ConEd’s plan to build an electric power plant on the face of Storm King mountain were approved. And a license was granted.
But the case had also caught the attention of Bob Boyle, a writer from Sports Illustrated and an avid fisherman. Bob had explored every nook and cranny of the Hudson and knew that the polluted river was still home to millions of fish that fed the entire east coast fishery. Bob was passionate about the Hudson and he liked a good fight.
METZNER: During the FPC hearings, ConEd expert Dr. Alfred Promutter (sp?) guaranteed that there would be no impact on fish eggs and that the spawning grounds for striped bass were much further up the river. He also claimed that no study had been done on the Hudson River fishery since 1936. But, Bob Boyle obtained a copy of thescientific paper written on the Hudson written in the 50s, and so tracked down the authors of this paper…
BOYLE: I said: I have this paper that you did, in which you found that striped bass spawn right in the vicinity of Storm King mountain. He said, that’s right. I said, well… Dr. Alfred Promutter… do you know him? He said: No, he hired us! He was in charge of the survey! I said… oh ho ho!
METZNER: The fact that Storm King mountain was the location of a striped bass spawning ground wasn’t the only thing that ConEd’s expert witness got wrong. He also knew that pumping eggs, larvae, and young fish up a mountain and then shooting them down through a whirl of turbine blades would devastate the fish population.
BOYLE: How would you like it if I said… I’m going to shoot you up in an elevator at 100 miles per hour and I’m going to shoot you down again, and I don’t know how it’s going to stop on the first floor. That’s the essence of what was going on with the fish!
METZNER: Dr. Promutter had estimated that only 3.6 percent of the fish would be killed. But he left out one thing- the Hudson is a tidal river.
BOYLE: What’s critical about this is that if you had striped bass eggs in the Storm King area, they just don’t go back the entrance where the water would be sucked up to Storm King once, they’d go past it 10 times. And so, instead of the phony formula that the state and ConEd concocted that said that 3.6 percent of the fish could be killed, it was 36 percent.
METZNER: To support this claim, someone had taken photos of massive fish kills at ConEd’s Indian Point power plant down the river… photos that mysteriously disappeared. Feeling like a character in a spy novel, Bob Boyle tracked down the photos from two men associated with the conservation department.
BOYLE: I said: How do you happen to have the pictures? They said, well, you know, our superiors came to us and they want the pictures you have- so they took the pictures, and then they came back a month later and they said: We want any duplicates you have. So we gave them the duplicates. I said… well, how do you have this? They said: They didn’t ask about triplicates!
METZNER: The case had also caught the public’s attention. The growing threat of urbanization was changing the American landscape. Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring exposed the danger of pollution. A belief in the power of the common person to organize and fight large corporations was fueling massive demonstrations…
METZNER: Scenic Hudson grew from a small group of concerned citizens to an organization with members form all over the country and the world. They organized protests with letter campaigns, but the main fight remained on the legal battlefield. They hired a prominent law firm to appeal the decision to license the plant. Albert K. Butsel was one of the attorneys assigned to the case.
BUTSEL: I would describe myself at that point as a very freshman, bright and first-year associate.
METZNER: The case was heard in October of 1965. ConEd argued that Scenic Hudson did not have the right to sue, it lacked what in legal terms is called Standing. In order to initiate a lawsuit, you have to have some sort of economic interest.
BUTSEL: You can’t just be a citizen who cares about it- you have to have some kind of legal interest. And, historically, legal interest has been associated with property ownership.
METZNER: Well, Sceneic Hudson was a group of citizens without any financial interest in power plants or the mountain. Nevertheless, they persisted and asked the FPC to demand that ConEd do a better job at reviewing alternative ways to provide power to New York City, and investigate further the threat to the Hudson’s fish.
BUTSEL: And, when the argument was over, I thought we had a 25 percent chance.
METZNER: While Scenic Hudson waited for the court’s decision, something unexpected happened:
[NEWS ALERT: MASSIVE POWER FAILURE IN THE EAST]
BUTSEL: Then on November the 9th, the lights went out in New York, it was the great black out of 1965, and within a day or two ConEdison had put out advertisements into the paper apologizing for the blackout saying that if they had had the Storm King project, they never would have had the blackout. So, from our optimism, we moved to pessimism.
METZNER: Then on December 22, 1965, Al Butsel got a call from a New York Times reporter. For the first time in history, the court had reversed an FPC decision to license a power plant.
[CREEPY LAUGHTER, MUSIC]
BOYLE: I was thrilled to win a case of this importance. Made me feel like I was a contributor!
METZNER: The court agreed with Scenic Hudson that the beauty and historic significance of Storm King had to be considered. The FPC was obligated to thoroughly evaluate all the evidence, including the potential danger to fish, and alternative ways to provide New York City with electricity.
BUTSEL: And, it remanded the case to the Federal Power Commission for further hearing, saying that the preservation of Storm King Mountain, it’s scenic beauty and historic sites, must be regarded as a basic concern.
METZNER: And the courts said that even though Scenic Hudson had no economic or property interests, it did have standing, it had the right to sue.
BUTSEL: It essentially opened the federal courts, and later the state courts, to litigation by environmental groups that had a connection.
METZNER: Well, this was big, a major turning point. It was no longer just about the money. Scenic beauty and wildlife were given protection right alongside business and commerce. It opened up an entirely new way for groups and private citizens to fight development happening in their own backyard. The National Environmental Policy Act was published four years later- modern environmental law was born. Pick up a newspaper any day of the week and it’s likely you can still see the impact of this case. But, Storm King and the Hudson River were not saved.
Even as citizen groups across the country began to use the law to protect scenic beauty and natural resources, the threat to Storm King Mountain and the Hudson River remained. It would take 16 more years of court proceedings and Congressional investigations before the battle was over. Then, finally on December 19th, 1980, representatives from 11 environmental, government and utility groups signed what later became known as the Hudson River Peace Treaty.
[MUSIC: Song about the Hudson River.]
METZNER: In the end, each side gave up something. ConEd abandoned the Storm King project completely and donated the 500 acre site as a park. Environmental groups reduced the steps that ConEd needed to take at its existing power plants on the Hudson to protect the striped bass, but the battle was over. The Hudson River once more gave birth to a new era in America’s history: Citizen groups that formed in response to the Storm King case continue today… Scenic Hudson, River Keeper, the Clearwater Sloop, and the Hudson River Foundation, all guard the river well…
And, although, much still needs to happen to clean up the Hudson, everyday groups across the country depend upon the precedence set by the 1965 case Scenic Hudson vs. the Federal Power Commission. The nation and the Hudson River have won.
DUNWELL: So, I personally taken my kids swimming in the Hudson River and I have gone swimming in the Hudson myself without fear. That’s a huge transformation from what the river was in my childhood.
[MUSIC CONTINUES: Pete Seeger “My Dirty Stream (The Hudson River Song) from God Bless The Grass (Sony Music 1966).]
CURWOOD: Storm over the Mountain come to us from the Sound and Story Project. It was mixed and narrated by Jim Metzner, and produced and edited by Eileen McAdam.
[MUSIC CONTINUES: Pete Seeger “My Dirty Stream (The Hudson River Song) from God Bless The Grass (Sony Music 1966).]
CURWOOD Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation.
Naomi Arenberg, Bobby Bascomb, Emmett Fitzgerald, , Helen Palmer, Kathryn Rodway, Adelaide Chen, James Curwood, Jennifer Marquis and Gabriela Romanow all help to make our show. Jeff Turton is our technical director. Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. You can find us anytime at l-o-e dot org - and like us on our facebook page - it’s PRI’s Living on Earth. And we tweet from @livingonearth. I'm Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening!
[MUSIC: Lacey Phillips “Soldier’s Joy” from Instrumental Music of the Southern Appalachians (Vintage Masters 2009).]
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