Thirty years ago, two life-changing things happened to Jon Bowermaster. One of them was moving to Stone Ridge. The other one was becoming friends with polar explorer Will Steger as a result of his work as a freelance journalist in New York City.
Steger hooked him up with the National Geographic Society, needing someone to crank the camera recording his planned 3,741-mile dogsled trek across Antarctica. That led to a ten-year relationship with NatGeo in which Bowermaster traveled all over the globe, mainly by kayak, documenting the health of our water planet. It was called the Oceans 8 Project.
Bowermaster quickly came to the conclusion that our Earth really only has one ocean, and that it connects us all. Seeing the threats to our water resources up close turned him into a passionate environmental activist.
Eleven books and more than a dozen documentary films later, Bowermaster has turned his lens much closer to home. “I’ve spent years making films about the relationship between man and water around the world, but I always wanted to do something about the Hudson River,” he says. “Not traveling as much as I used to, internationally, allows me to focus on things going on in my own back yard.”
That’s not to say that the adventurous photojournalist is sitting at home very much; he has spent much of the past year touring the country with actor Mark Ruffalo, screening his anti-fracking documentary Dear President Obama – the sequel to Dear Governor Cuomo – and leading panel discussions. Bowermaster has also been busy collecting footage in the Hudson Valley and cobbling together a series of magazine-format short documentary pieces collectively titled The Hudson: A River at Risk, which can been seen here. “The short videos work really well. We’re not asking viewers to commit 90 minutes or two hours,” he said.
The series started with a story about the “bomb trains” of non-reinforced tanker cars that are carrying highly volatile crude oil fracked from the Bakken shale beds in North Dakota to New York State. Grim footage of derailments, crashes and explosions of similar fuel-laden rail cars that have occurred in various states and Canadian provinces in the past few years is paired with interviews with environmental leaders in the Hudson Valley, who warn that it’s only a matter of time before disaster strikes our region. The hazards of shipping Bakken crude via barge down the river are also addressed in this segment.
The series continues with a look at the dangers posed by the Indian Point nuclear plant, with its leaky cooling systems, decades’ worth of stockpiled, radioactive spent fuel rods and lax security on the river side. Then comes a look at the billion-dollar effort to replace the Tappan Zee Bridge, the single largest construction project in America. “When we were shooting, we encountered 100 times more security at the Tappan Zee construction site than at Indian Point from the water,” Bowermaster notes.
The next three mini-docs cover the toxic legacy of PCBs in Hudson River sediments, the plan by the Public Service Commission to build high-voltage electrical transmission lines from western New York to Manhattan via the Hudson Valley, and the latest, covering the Pilgrim Pipeline and the AIM Pipeline.
Of these, “The most eye-opening experience was reporting on the PCB situation as it stands today,” says Bowermaster. After the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ruled in 2009 that General Electric was responsible for remediating the mess that it had left behind in the Hudson, “GE’s task was to clean up the country’s largest Superfund site. They spent two billion dollars, pulled out early, and left behind the country’s largest Superfund site: 150 acres of badly polluted river bottom.”
There’s plenty of blame to go around for the unfinished project, according to the filmmaker. “The errant group there is the EPA. Their estimate of the size of the problem was low.” After the dredging project got underway and the federal agency adjusted its assessment, the political will to hold the polluter’s feet to the fire evaporated. “At that point, guess who disappeared?” Bowermaster asks. He answers his own question. “Cuomo. He was more interested in getting GE to move its headquarters from Connecticut to Westchester County. Eventually they announced their move to Boston in the middle of his State-of-the-State address.”
All this sounds like depressing news, but Bowermaster makes a point of ending each filmed segment with a call to action, posting onscreen the contact information for government officials whom the concerned public can call or write to urge remedial action. “I hate documentaries that bum you out,” he says.
The newest segment about to be released deals with the US Coast Guard’s proposal to authorize anchorage sites for barges all along the Hudson between Kingston and Yonkers, “sitting there filled with oil, waiting for energy prices to go up.” The next three after that will be more upbeat, he promises, spotlighting local environmental heroes, Hudson Valley music and culture and the resurgence of cleaner, greener, innovative businesses along the river’s shores.
Right now is a crucial time for citizen activism, Bowermaster contends. There are pressures to turn our valley into an “energy corridor” ever since the export of US-produced oil was legalized by Congress two years ago. “What’s changed is the power of communities,” he says. “One thing that New York State communities learned from the fracking fight is that they can make a difference…. I think Pilgrim Pipeline and the anchorages are going to be stopped by communities getting together and saying, ‘We don’t want them.’…The only way to save our future is to move to renewables.”
To view the mini-documentaries on river issues, visit https://bit.ly/2fQiBQv. For more on Jon Bowermaster’s life and work, and to read his blog, Notes from Sea Level, visit his website at https://jonbowermaster.com.