- Power on the Hudson: Storm King Mountain and the Emergence of Modern American Environmentalism by Robert Lifset
By Robert Lifset. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015. Pp. 328. $25.95.
On 26 September 1962, Consolidated Edison of New York approached the city of Cornwall, New York with a proposal to build a hydroelectric plant in the economically depressed town on the western shore of the Hudson River. The plant represented not only a boon to the local economy, but it also found a clever solution to the question of how to generate electricity at moments of peak demand. The plant’s “pump-storage” design worked by pumping water to a holding reservoir atop Storm King Mountain during periods of low usage. When New Yorkers awoke and turned on percolators, air conditioners, and electric shavers, ConEd would release water from the reservoir, sending it coursing through hydroelectric turbines buried in the side of the mountain, before the water returned to the Hudson.
The project seemed, at the time, immune to concerns about environmental impacts. The mayor of Cornwall proclaimed, “I can’t imagine how [End Page 179] anyone could believe that this project will ruin any natural beauty[;] chances are, you will be able to drive on every road . . . and not see a sign of the project” (p. 39). Nevertheless, over the following two decades, the Storm King became the subject of an ongoing battle between environmentalists and ConEd which, Robert Lifset argues in the most arresting feature of his political history, transformed environmentalism itself. As he details, the battle against Storm King led a movement that had previously focused almost exclusively on the public politics of scenic preservation to become both broader and narrower. Environmentalism became broader, Lifset explains, as opponents of the Storm King Plant employed ecological arguments, demonstrating how the plant and its power lines not only threatened scenery and parklands, but also endangered the habitat of the striped bass and the marine biology of the entire Hudson estuary. Storm King’s opponents took environmental battles into new venues, challenging the plant in administrative actions that forced federal agencies to account for ecological change and legal filings that sought to give standing to broad classes claiming environmental harms. In the wake of Storm King, such administrative and legal strategies would become central to environmental politics. At the same time, Lifset argues these new venues narrowed the movement, making it far more dependent on scientific and legal expertise and isolated from a broader public.
Lifset’s book reshapes historical understandings of recent political history in two key ways. First, his focus on complex difficulties faced by ConEd in the 1960s and 1970s provides new understandings of the origins and effects of the 1970s energy crises. While, as he writes, “the story of modern America largely rests on upon a political economy dependent upon energy use and exploitation” (p. ix), he shows that political economy to be anything but simple. From the 1960s onward, ConEd was faced with higher than usual costs, owing to demands that it bury all power lines in New York City and to new air pollution regulations that prevented ConEd from following other utilities and turning to coal-fired generation in the 1970s. Over-reliance on the massive 1,000 megawatt “Big Allis” generating unit in Queens also put stress on the utility’s system. The book’s careful detailing of these issues clearly presents the corporate rationale for the Storm King proposal.
Second, Lifset shows readers, increasingly as the book proceeds, how the rise of the environmental regulatory state altered the politics of development. He takes readers into the administrative hearings of the Federal Power Commission and the boardrooms of New York law firms where the fate of Storm King was decided. He conveys, in great detail, disputes over the nature of the Hudson’s ecology and the impact of the plant on matters such as the reproductive lives of striped bass, showing how the contestation of ConEd’s claims to expertise became increasingly central to environmentalists’ [End Page 180] strategies. Vitally, the book narrates the...