Trail guide: Reading the nature of New York

Sep 5, 2011

For Labor Day we thought we’d take you for a deeper plunge into one of our summer reading recommendationsThe Nature of New York: An Environmental History of the Empire State.

Here’s an excerpted Q & A from our conversation with author David Stradling, professor of urban and environmental history at the University of Cincinnati:

Q: I think I’m calling you in Ohio but this book is about New York. Why New York?

I think in part because New York is such an active state. It’s such a leader in a variety of ways, particularly in creating forest reserves - the really expansive Adirondack and Catskill parks. Of course we see increasingly important global issues. But still, state policy through really the entirety of New York State’s existence is really important, from the creation of the Erie Canal all the way up to the debate over fracking.

Q: What do you think drives where the state gets involved? You mention economic concerns a lot - do you see a pattern in where the state steps in?

I think state involvement in environmental issues - relating to natural resources and land use, housing - almost all of it is driven by an interest in protecting the public, in encouraging the development of resources in the public interest. I think very often economics are at the core of that, but in other ways they’re not.

There are important economic consequences for creating large urban parks, for example. But the discussion around creating them and designing them doesn’t involve pointed discussion of economics. It’s mostly about ... the mental health, the physical health of urban residents.

The state can get involved in regulation and even ownership - as it does with timber, with the forests. But there’s a balancing that happens with economic interests and then non-economic interests too. And that’s a tricky thing, I think, for politicians.

Q: You mention one old practice for water pollution cases, where regulators would put minnows in the water and wait for them to die - because of the way the rules were written, something had to actually be physically harmed.

This is because [state officials were] working under kind of an archaic law that was basically, you had to show harm. So an industry or a farmer could dump anything into the water. If it didn’t cause discernable harm, identifiable harm to somebody else, then it wasn’t illegal.

Someone had to prove that harm was actually being done. So hence, you could introduce a minnow into polluted water and show that the fish is being killed - those are publicly owned fish, and hence that was a problem.

And this changes with the modern environmental regulations which really begin in the late 1960s, early 1970s, which basically stipulate that there are harmful things that can be entered into public waters that need to be controlled.

Q: Does the law change with the science?

I’m not really sure it’s necessarily just the science that’s changing things. Certainly science plays a tremendous role in changing people’s ideas about how interventionist governments need to be, how detailed environmental regulations need to be. Because everybody learns much more about what various pollutants can - or are - doing to us.

That explodes exponentially after World War II, as people begin to learn more about radiation, pesticides. There’s an awful lot of scientific learning that does happen, not just in the scientific community, but also in the general public.

There’s also a greater sense that our economy has evolved to such a degree that our government needs to keep pace with it; that our regulatory framework really does need to be strong enough to deal with the complexity of the economy and the strength of individual companies and other players in the economy.

Q: In your book, you talk about the siting of nuclear power plants, and other alternative power sources that were never built. Today is that power mostly supplied by coal?

Or natural gas. Yeah, it is interesting when we see these debates about wind power or particularly fracking these days: New York is just beginning its career as a sizable energy producing state.

Other states,  particularly Pennsylvania, West Virgina, Kentucky,  Ohio have had long, long painful debates about how much we should protect the interests of those who are not gaining directly from energy extraction. And here’s where balancing those various interests becomes tricky.

Because whenever you have a landscape of energy extraction there can be substantial winners - I mean people who are going to become very very wealthy - and then you can have others who will become great losers, not make anything from the extraction.

Q: Can you tell me about Storm King?

Yeah. So Con Edison is attempting in the post-war era to keep up with New York City’s growth by figuring out how it can build enough power plants - one of the power plants it winds up building is the Indian [Point] the nuclear power plant.

But one of its other proposed solutions - that wouldn’t add any net power - came up in 1962:

Basically, what the plant would do is pump water up to the top of Storm King Mountain. They would do the pumping overnight and then they would drop the water back down through turbines during the day when there was greater power demand. So basically it would function as a huge battery. It would allow them to store electricity in the form of this potential energy at the top of the hill and then let it loose when they needed the power generation.

It’s a live debate through the 1960s and into the 1970s, in part because Storm King in and of itself is a beautiful mountain ... it’s been kind of part of that whole romantic scenery of the Hudson Highlands. So it’s a historic place, it’s a beautiful place, and obviously creating a big industrial facility there it would have been an aesthetic scar.

And although Con Ed went through several different permutations trying to diminish the impact of putting a power plant right there, the opposition that took place turned public support against building the Storm King plant and it was never ... built.

Q: How big did the argument over Storm King get?

I think by later protest standards it would seem mild. Mostly what we’re talking about is publicity. Raising concern, doing research, publishing. We’re not talking about people who are chaining themselves [to the mountain].

But Con Ed becomes one of the great villains in New York City as far as the environment is concerned. Of course Con Ed is in a very difficult position - trying to generate an ever increasing amount of electricity for New York City is very, very difficult. So I really do think that they are attempting to do what they can to gain control of their own power production.

Q: What’s interesting about those examples you gave is that they seem like sort of ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ scenarios.

Yeah, absolutely. New Yorkers have been pretty effective at intervening in the production of the power within the state, which has had some positive environmental consequences. I think it’s wonderful that there isn’t a power plant right across from the Saratoga National Battlefield. I think it’s probably a good thing that they didn’t build a nuclear power plant on Cayuga Lake.

However, basically what New Yorkers have accomplished is that they have kind of forced the importation of electricity, sometimes from very great distances. The environmental consequences of the generation of that power can be hidden - for example the environmental consequences of hydropower in Quebec, which is really a remarkably unknown and powerful story about the changing of a vast landscape in northern and central Quebec.

New York has to import energy from outside its boundaries in part because it’s so difficult for New York’s power companies to build facilities inside of the state of New York. It’s just easier for them to purchase energy on the open market.

Q: You explain that organizations like NRDC and Riverkeeper came out of the Storm King dispute. A lot of us know them from the gas drilling issue. But your book doesn’t make it up to gas drilling. What do you think history tells us about it?

I’m of two minds on the fracking issue. One of the things that’s most easily learned from environmental history is that corporations won’t tell you the whole truth when it comes to environmental issues. You simply can’t expect them to divulge what’s really problematic or potentially problematic about what it is that they plan to do. And they will grossly overestimate the benefits of what they plan to do; grossly underestimate the risks that they’re willing to take to do it.

On the other hand, one of the other lessons, particularly of New York State, is that downstate interests very often very easily trump upstate interests. We’ve seen that over and over again.

And I think - although I’m personally as an environmentalist I’m concerned about what might happen to surface water, to aquifers - I’m not at all convinced that fracking is at all safe.

At the same time, it seems to me that it’s simply too easy to say that because in general we New Yorkers like the upstate New York landscape the way it is, we ought not have gas exploration and hydrofracking. I think this is potentially another way of removing [agency] from rural people who are having a difficult time making a living in counties that are shrinking both demographically and economically - preventing them from potentially exploiting a real windfall, something that could revive communities.

Emphasis on “could.” Because it could clearly go bad. And this is one of the reasons why I think all New Yorkers should be thankful for how thorough environmental review can be in New York State. Although there’s good reason for concern, at the very least there are well-intended, reasonable people reviewing what we do know about hydrofracking and trying to determine what proper regulation should be.

Want to hear more? Stradling will be lecturing on his book at Cornell on September 21, from 7:30 to 10:30 in the Statler Hall Auditorium.