Forum in Saugerties discusses how to oppose ash landfill, other environmentally hazardous projects

Methods to combat environmentally harmful projects in their communities and a proposed ash landfill in Catskill was the primary topic of conversation at a forum on environmental activism held at the Frank Greco Senior Center and organized by the Saugerties Democrats on April 24.

Laura Hartmann, founder of the group TownofUlsterCitizens.org formed, in part, to oppose the Glidepath “peaker” power plant plan, and Sue Rosenberg, one of the leaders of the protests against the proposed Pilgrim Pipeline, walked attendees through what they did and are doing on their fronts and talked about the community could fight a proposal for an incinerator ash dump in nearby Catskill.

“Holding up signs and saying, ‘No Glidepath’ is not enough reason for a town board or anyone to say no [to a project],” said Hartmann. “You can’t turn down businesses — we can’t tell you no because we don’t want you or like the idea, that’s against the law. You have to find the reason why they shouldn’t be there. You have to get inside the project.”

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Ultimately, Hartmann’s grassroots opposition to the peaker plant, which was to use natural gas and diesel as a backup, led to a shift — instead of utilizing fossil fuels, it will serve only as battery storage for electricity, and the proposed site was moved further from surrounding residences. The land surrounding the plant will be “forever wild” and the site’s footprint was reduced from six to two acres.

Hartmann said that this was accomplished primarily by attending local town board meetings en masse to keep up with the project and voice concerns, garnering the support of politicians and large environmental organizations like Scenic Hudson and by filing a slew of freedom of information law (FOIL) requests.

“Every time I saw [former county executive] Mike Hein at an event, I would go up to him and go, ‘Hey Mike. You know, your legacy is at stake … you’ve done great things with renewables and you’re going to ruin it,’” said Hartmann.

Hein came out against the Glidepath plan last year, and a shift in state energy policy also played a role in getting Glidepath to change its mind.

“We all feel really comfortable to go up and complain when they aren’t doing something good … but if you want something done and if you feel a sense from an elected official that they could be on your side … tell them that they have your support,” said Hartmann. “If they don’t have your support, they won’t go out on a limb.”

She also attributed the group’s success to its website, which streamlined information onto one platform. Concerned citizens could learn about the issues and discern which public officials to contact from one landing page — an approach that’s been effective with the older KingstonCitizens.org group, upon which TownofUlsterCitizens.org was modeled.

In opposing the Pilgrim Pipeline, a proposed 178-mile delivery system for crude oil that would, if approved, extend from Albany all the way to Linden, N.J., Rosenberg said that she and other activists used a “multiplicity” of methods, including petitioning local town board along the pipeline’s route to pass memorializing resolutions stating their displeasure with the project and through demonstrations to raise awareness.

Wheelabrator, the second-largest trash incineration company in the U.S., is seeking to place a large ash dump in an abandoned Catskill quarry. The company currently operates incinerators in Peekskill, Poughkeepsie and Hudson Falls, which according to Riverkeeper are the “largest polluters in Westchester, Dutchess and Washington counties.” The ash produced in these facilities would be dumped into the quarry. According to Riverkeeper and the Energy Justice Network, a 2017 study by a New York University professor of environmental medicine found that a similar landfill in Baltimore, the same size as the one currently operating in Peekskill, caused an estimated $55 million in health damage to people in New York and across several states.

“Last night we were really directly asking the Catskill town supervisor to stand up for our community… she said she will wait a few years for the state to complete its review,” said Rosenberg. “People are saying that now is the town to look at this property and our magnificent Hudson River towns and say, ‘What can we bring to these places that will enhance our towns and not destroy them.’”

Former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator Judith Enck released a letter signed by 50 environmental and community groups, including Riverkeeper and Scenic Hudson, opposing the project. The week before last, Rosenberg and other Catskill activists hosted an informational meeting on the project that attracted 250 people.

“Education of what your problem is really key to success to getting people on board,” said Rosenberg. “You can’t do it alone — one citizen getting 100, 200 signatures and presenting it to your town board, you’re not really going to be successful. You need to get people inspired and to work. As we added to our membership, I would put out emails that said ‘call to action — we need you at this town board meeting, we need you for this even, we need you to bring mozzarella cheese for this event we’re running.’ And they did.”

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