4. 1970 to 2000: The Environmental Machine
Energy and Economics
The battle over the Storm King plant was important not only to legal history. It also came at the beginning of a debate over energy and how to provide enough of it to New York City and the rest of the country. As the debate continued, more New Yorkers began considering alternatives to the "official solution" of increasing the number of plants fired by oil, coal, and nuclear fuel. Rather than accepting the idea that the states supply of electrical energy had to increase forever, activists began exploring the potential for conservation and renewable sources.
Consolidated Edison built several large power plants in the 1950s and 1960s in an attempt to keep up with the rising demand for electricity in New York City. These included the first privately owned nuclear power plants in the US, at the Hudson River town of Buchannan. When these reactors (known to most people as Indian Point) opened in 1962, they proved far less successful than promised. A large supply of river water was needed for cooling the plant, and the intake pipes occasionally crushed large numbers of fish. The water returned to the Hudson was 18 degrees warmer than the natural river water had been, and the difference produced a temperature shock that killed more fish. Then a pipe leading to the reactor cracked, and the plant was closed for repairs for most of 1970.
Public opposition to the Storm King pumped water storage project centered around the negative impact the project would have on scenery, but there was also a larger issue. In 1969, Con Edison announced that it needed to add 6,000 megawatts of generating capacity over the next decade. It proposed that 5,000 of those megawatts come from new plants located along the Hudson River, most of them nuclear. The prospect of a dozen new power plants warming the river, combined with similar expansion plans elsewhere in the state, helped galvanize the emerging opposition to nuclear power. A group of citizens began collecting information and challenging official statements about Indian Point (in 2000, this group was still active as The Indian Point Project). On Long Island, the SHAD Alliance waged a protracted and successful battle against the Long Island Lighting Company (LILCO) to stop a proposed nuclear plant at Shoreham. In Ithaca, the Citizens Committee to Save Cayuga Lake successfully lobbied New York State Electric and Gas (NYSEG) to switch from nuclear to coal fuel for its plant at Milliken Station.
Local groups in New York were linked to other anti-nuclear groups through Ralph Naders Critical Mass Project and the Nuclear Information and Research Service, both in Washington DC. But in September 1979, the global anti-nuclear movement briefly focused on New York City, where a group called Musicians for Safe Energy (MUSE) held five days of "concerts for a non-nuclear future" at Madison Square Garden. The bill included major stars such as Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, and Bonnie Raitt. It later became a successful record album and film, generating $750,000 and enormous publicity for the cause. One of the chief MUSE organizers was John Hall, a songwriter and rock musician from Saugerties. He later became a founder of a local environmental group called the Winston Farm Alliance, a member of the Ulster County Legislature, and president of the local school board.
The "No Nukes" concerts were a high-water mark in the anti-nuclear movement. During the 1980s, utilities canceled one nuclear construction project after another, and in the 1990s they turned to smaller plants fired by clean-burning natural gas. Negative publicity and protests played an important role in slowing down the nuclear construction boom, but the mortal blow was dealt by a combination of science and economics. As scientists learned more about the potential for accidents and the difficulty of waste disposal, it became more expensive to build a nuclear plant that would pass federal licensing requirements. In practice, nuclear fission turned out to be a tremendously inefficient way to boil water and heat homes. The energy analyst Amory Lovins famously noted that making electricity from fission is "like cutting butter with a chainsaw."
When disputes over energy moved into the courtroom, they often turned on highly technical matters such as whether planned safety equipment was adequate or whether the projected demand for power was in fact needed. To match the experts employed by utilities and licensing agencies, the earliest citizens groups turned to academic and amateur physicists, biologists, and statisticians. In these early salvos of the war of experts, two New Yorkers were particularly important to the environmentalists. The first expert is Joanna Underwood. A former New York University professor, she founded a research organization called INFORM in 1974 and was still its executive director in 2000. INFORM distributes information on strategies for pollution control and waste reduction. Their first publication described the cutting-edge technology of the day for controlling air pollution, and showed communities how to investigate local problems. Later projects have addressed subjects ranging from chemical hazards to water use, transportation, and clean sources of energy.
The other expert was one of the first American scientists to warn the public about pollution. Barry Commoner is a Brooklyn-born and Columbia-educated son of Russian immigrants. In the 1950s, as a member of the St. Louis Committee for Nuclear Information, Commoner collected baby teeth around the country, analyzed them, and found radioactive isotopes from the fallout of atomic tests. A brilliant biologist, Commoner also became a scientific celebrity with popular books on the environmental crisis like Science and Survival (1966) and The Closing Circle (1971). In 1980, he helped organize the Citizens Party and ran for President as its candidate. And in 1981, he returned home to Queens College to direct the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems. In the 1980s and 1990s, Commoner oversaw the development of groundbreaking environmental research, including computer models that could find the sources of dioxin and other airborne pollutants that end up in the Great Lakes. Models like these proved essential when citizens challenged plans for incinerators that burned toxic waste and garbage. In 1987, the Center organized a pilot projects in East Hampton that recycled and re-sold 85 percent of residential trash. Their success helped bring large-scale trash recycling to greater New York.
One of Barry Commoners simplest and most persuasive points is that the most successful form of pollution control is to change the ways goods and services are produced. The most dramatic environmental successes since 1970, such as removing lead from gasoline and banning DDT, involved eliminating pollutants instead of trying to control them. "We now know that environmental pollution is an incurable disease," he wrote. "It can only be prevented."
In the 1970s and 1980s, environmental impact statements often listed the costs and benefits of a proposed action, such as a new power plant. The ideology behind cost-benefit analysis was that of the free market. According to economist Milton Friedman, "the real problem is not eliminating pollution, but trying to establish arrangements that will yield the right amount of pollution: an amount such that the gain from reducing pollution a bit more just balances the sacrifice of the other good things . . . that would have to be given up in order to reduce the pollution." Commoner refused to accept the idea of a right amount of pollution, and in time he also came to reject the free market. "Sustainable development --that is, economic development that conforms to the principles of ecology -- calls for social governance of the means of production," he wrote.
Commoner courted controversy by linking environmentalism with democratic socialism, especially when he ran for president against Ronald Reagan. But his vision of a society that produces no pollution and consumes fewer goods endures as a challenge to consumerism.
The prevention philosophy took hold in the 1990s, as the reality of global warming became clear. In May 2000, the state began a four-year "Green Building Tax Credit Program" that reduces the property tax on buildings that meet strict standards for energy efficiency, indoor air quality, and the use of construction materials. The National Audubon Societys new headquarters building, which opened in Manhattan in the late 1990s, drew national attention for a design that dramatically cut energy use during construction and operation. With the tax credit, more builders will follow suit.