There’s a good book called “The Catskills: Its History and How it Changed America” by Stephen M. Silverman. It’s a pretty lofty title. Did the Catskills really change America? They certainly played a huge part in the making of the Empire State. The old growth forests of these mountains were clear-cut and sent down the Hudson River to raise the foundations of New York City. Tanneries used the bark of the native hemlock tree to tan leather for a growing country (and in the process fouled pristine creeks for the first time.) The mountains have played a huge part in our national brand of arts and entertainment. The Catskills are the home of the “Borscht Belt,” they’re where James Fenimore Cooper wrote his sagas of the American wilderness, and was the site of Rip Van Winkle’s long nap. The Hudson River School of painters began here, inspired by the soaring natural beauty that was in stark contrast to the growing urban centers. They were one of the first groups to realize how special these wild areas were.
Today the Catskills provide almost all of the fresh water to New York City, piped over 150 miles through an ingenious series of tunnels, canals, and waterways. After all of the hemlocks were cut down, which was a massive self-defeating own-goal that ended the tanning industry here for good, the water eventually returned to its lovely pristine state and became a high value commodity for the people of New York.
Today we’re contemplating another own-goal, that face-palming sports term wherein a soccer player accidentally scores against his own team. This own-goal we’re contemplating is the building of a privately operated waste management plant in the heart of the northern Catskills, on the border between the towns of Roxbury and Prattsville, New York. A company called Hughes Energy is proposing construction of a waste management facility that would be located just uphill and about 1,000 feet from the Schoharie Reservoir, one of three massive reservoirs that were created by flooding whole valleys to service the fresh water needs of New York City. Families of Dutch origin who’d been farming here since the days of New Netherland watched their ancestral lands disappear as the waters rose. Whole towns vanished. Some of the last traces of the Mohawk tribe in the Schoharie Valley went under as well. New Yorkers have given a lot to build these reservoirs. These are man-made lakes deemed so fragile that the people of the area are prohibited from swimming in them. The surrounding area is protected by the city’s Department of Environmental Protection. The DEP has bought thousands of acres of land, enforces the ban on swimming, sees to it that boats are steam-cleaned before they’re put in, and ensures that septic systems in the area are functioning at very specific standards; percolation rates are strictly tested to make sure waste water filters into the earth and doesn’t flow downstream into the reservoir. This last part cost us personally thousands of dollars to comply with city regulations, something we were happy to do since the water source is so precious to so many millions of people.
It’s in this watershed that Hughes Energy intends to build its plant. Dozens of heavy trucks per hour would begin bringing garbage into Prattsville to be processed under intense steam pressure by boiling water brought from the aquifers beneath the reservoir. The resulting material is reusable solid waste that can be turned into composite materials or burned as fuel. This is the first plant of its kind operated by Hughes Energy in the United States. There are no guarantees about how well it will function. There are no guarantee about cleanliness of the emissions, which they claim will be “below New York State thresholds” (those of us who have seen what emanates from New York City should be concerned about that statement.) The only guarantee is that fleets of forty ton trucks per hour will be traveling on two lane highways that already regularly crumble under endless pressure from heavy rains. Rainfall is plentiful and abundant in the Catskills, a blessing that is an occasional curse. It is the reason the Catskills make for a perfect fresh water resource, and the reason the region is occasionally wracked by punishing floods.
Ten years ago this month, Prattsville and surrounding towns took a direct hit from Hurricane Irene. Prattsville was almost destroyed when the Schoharie rose by more than seventeen feet. Over the past decade the community has gradually rebuilt its town. Foundations have been raised, bridges reconstructed; all to maintain and sustain the rural lifestyle of farming, logging, and tourism that depend on this pristine landscape and which are the main drivers of the local economy.
Enter a dozen garbage trucks an hour, each filled with forty tons of garbage, stage right. Stage left. Center stage. Driving in from all directions, far from the interstate which would be the logical place for a garbage processing hub.
Enter a new technology into a fragile ecosystem. One that depends on the very watershed that gives so much to the people of New York. A stone’s throw from a reservoir that services North America’s largest city. One spill. One fire. One mistake undoes all of the sacrifices that New Yorkers have made to create these irreplaceable resources and very likely could not be undone.
Delaware County is the origin of the Delaware River, which happens to start behind a humble tire shop and its resident stacks of old tires, just down the road from our house in the woods. It’s a humble beginning to an important waterway. The Delaware River is as close to the mythical rivers of ancient literature as we get in the United States. Along with the Mississippi, the Delaware and the Hudson are the arterials of our shared creation story, supplying life giving water to millions downstream. Heavy industry that relies on importing thousands of tons of garbage per day has no place in these historical headwaters.
The Hughes Energy facility has no place in the heart of the Catskill Mountains, which really have helped make America what it is today. Please help preserve this invaluable and irreplaceable natural resource, call or write your representatives in New York State. Call the Department of Environmental protection. Tell our friends in New York City that our primary water source is being threatened. And please call the Department of Environmental Conservation, who is in charge of green lighting this misplaced project and voice your concern.
Fig. 1: George Washington Crossing the Delaware, by Emanuel Leutze