Featured Story: Defending the Hudson River

Engaging in one of the most potentially volatile Hudson River controversies in years, Pace University Environmental Policy Clinic students participated in an official US Coast Guard process of governance and policy.

This November, Christina Thomas ’19, Environmental Studies, and Margaret (Peggy) Doyle ’19, Economics, were invited by the US Coast Guard to be official observers at a Port and Waterway Safety Assessment (PAWSA) workshop in Poughkeepsie, New York. It was the first public step in studying a Coast Guard plan to permit 43 special anchorages on the Hudson River where commercial ships, many carrying petroleum products, could drop anchor.

The students and their Clinic classmates began an investigation of Coast Guard procedures prior to its June 2016 anchorages proposal, and in December 2016, shared findings at a news conference that the agency had bypassed its own rules. Although the Coast Guard denied these charges, in July 2017 the proposal was halted so that they could conduct the very PAWSA the students requested.

As a result of the PAWSA workshop in November, and the effectiveness of the original work began in the Environmental Policy Clinic, the Coast Guard will continue to investigate the need for and risks associated with the anchorages proposal, and provide an environmental impact statement pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).  This is exactly the action students had proposed to congressional representatives at a Project Pericles event in April. The students’ efforts in this process have been an honor for Pace, and a recognition of the Pace Path of professional training combined with classroom learning.

We spoke with Christina and Peggy about their journey to Poughkeepsie.

Why is this investigation of the anchorages proposal important, and what impact do you think your efforts have made on the community?

Christina: For us, it's important to make sure that the public is properly engaged in a process like this from start to finish. Since communities will be the most impacted, especially in regards to recreational, aesthetic and economic reasons, they need to have a voice in decisions like this not just on the Hudson, but everywhere. It is only with pushback that positive change will come about.

Peggy: It has upset thousands of people and for good reason. There has been absolutely no establishment of true need for the anchorage sites and no disproving that the new anchorage sites can encourage an increase in vessel traffic, specifically commercial. We hope that our actions have made it apparent to the US Coast Guard that we know there is something not right about the proposal. 

In light of the exciting developments from the PAWSA workshop, how does your work continue?

C: Because we are left in the unexpected position of almost being able to declare victory, our original plans to lobby elected officials appear to no longer be necessary. Instead, we plan to use our upcoming trip to Washington to brief the staff of the Hudson River congressional delegation and attempt to generate a joint letter from them to the Coast Guard requesting official confirmation of the commitments made by the agency at the PAWSA meetings. It's a lot of work but we are making constant progress!

P:  We plan to be part of this process every step of the way with two goals - ensuring that all protocol is followed, and that an establishment of a true need for these anchorage sites occurs. We just want full transparency and plan to fill any holes that we found ignored.

This story has evolved over time, and the Clinic has been involved every step of the way. What made you press on?

C: The biggest reason we keep pushing is that, despite suspending the proposal and making promises, nothing is going to stop the Coast Guard from doing this again at a future date. That is why we are so adamant on requiring them to do an environmental impact statement.

P: Maybe it was Professor Cronin’s passion about this issue, or maybe it was just the shear complexity of it, but we found a place where we felt we could correct some mistakes, intentional or not, that could potentially affect 315 miles of life [along the Hudson River]. 

​You and your fellow Clinic students have identified a wrong and called out a very powerful agency to right that wrong. This sounds intimidating. How has the Environmental Policy Clinic course prepared you?

C: Professor Cronin’s experience in politics and policymaking added tremendous value to our experience as students. Without his guidance, I would neither have the knowledge I have now nor would have found my voice to make sure the right changes come about.

P: I most certainly would not be able to handle the work we are doing if I had not been in the Clinic prior, two years ago. We went through the required NY State lobby training and spent class time discussing and researching our topics and learning how to write legislative language. These last two years’ worth of real-life experience, researching and lobbying, allowed me to build up the courage to face the Coast Guard and question them in person and through channels like news conferences.  

The Hudson River has captured the eyes and hearts of artists and others alike throughout history. What does it mean to you?

C: This is a big aspect of our continued resistance to this proposal! I value how an aesthetic connection to nature and a place can result in respect for the environment and lead to conservation efforts. It's important to have natural places to retreat to that are not soiled by industry, like the Hudson River. While we do not oppose industrial development outright, it’s important that we thoroughly think through actions and their unforeseen consequences.

P: I am among millions of others who have an emotional attachment to the river. It inspires a sense of awe. Not only does the river hold a place in some of America’s oldest historical events, it is a true natural wonder, being one of the only rivers that has tides that span the entirety of it.

Learn more about the Environmental Policy Clinic here.

Learn more about Dyson’s environmental degree programs offered through the Department of Environmental Studies and Science here.