HASTINGS-ON-HUDSON, N.Y. – It’s been 40 years to the day since the Clean Water Act was passed and the modern environmental movement was born. Since then, countless legal battles have been fought and won by advocates, but the one that launched a movement was a battle for the Hudson River.
The landmark legal battle of Storm King Mountain was waged by environmentalists against a proposed Con Edison power plant on the mountain in Cornwall and for the first time, gave average citizens legal standing to protect the environment. The fight led to the passage of the Clean Water Act, which was enacted Oct. 18, 1972.
“It really established a much firmer understanding of the rights of citizens to be concerned about the environment and the right of the environment itself to have standing in the courts,” said Alexander “Sandy” Saunders, whose father, Alexander Saunders, formed Scenic Hudson, a group that fought to stop the power plant.
At the time, the proposed project would have been the largest hydroelectric plant of its kind in the world at a cost of $160 million. With rampant pollution already affecting the Hudson, the new project could only have made matters worse.
“You just can’t believe what the river was like,” said Teri Waivada, former executive director of the Newburgh Industrial Development Agency. “Anyone who’s in their 60s or 70s will tell you how different it was.”
Waivada became involved in the Storm King case as a member of the conservation committee of her local garden club and later worked for the Westchester County Industrial Development Agency.
The landmark case laid the foundation for future environmental legislation and agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency, Clean Water Act, State Environmental Quality Review Act and National Environmental Policy Act, Saunders said.
“None of that would have happened until the attention was brought to what a magnificent resource we had on our waterfront,” Waivada said. “It was an exciting time for people. People were getting involved, they were thinking about their communities and natural resources and how to protect them.”
Saunders, his father, Waivada, and other regular citizens united to fight against Con Ed and formed Scenic Hudson, a group that is still one of the strongest advocates for the river today. In that era, people didn’t fight against big business or the government, making the work of Scenic Hudson a revolutionary step in the environmental movement, Waivada said.
Scenic Hudson and its allies were successful in stopping the plant with the 1980 Hudson River Settlement, in which Con Ed agreed to abandon the project and fund a $12 million endowment for research on reducing fish deaths from power plant operations.
“The right of citizens to be involved in environmental planning was confirmed,” Saunders said.