“The Fight to Save Olana and Its Environs” by Loretta Simon

In 1973 the Power Authority of the State of New York (PASNY) announced plans to build three power plants in Greene County: nuclear, coal, and pumped storage. The nuclear and coal plants were proposed for Athens on open land about three miles from our home in Athens Village, with Cementon identified as an alternative site for the nuclear plant. My husband Joseph and I were restoring a historic row house a block from the Hudson River at the time. After teaching art for eight years, I had resigned to stay home and take care of our little daughter.

Mary Berner, a retired art teacher who had taught in the Coxsackie-Athens School District and an anti-nuclear activist, began holding meetings to inform the public about the negatives of nuclear power. Her meetings led to the formation of Citizens to Preserve the Hudson Valley (CPHV) to fight the power plants.PASNY eventually announced it had chosen to put the nuclear plant in Cementon, perhaps because of the intense opposition in Athens. The Cementon site was in an industrial area, but was surrounded by housing. It was also small; and the exclusionary zone would have extended into the Hudson River. Because most of the hundreds of construction workers would come from out of town, it required construction of a major roadway to bring workers and construction equipment to the site. The road would have crossed through the Catskill business district and some quiet neighborhoods. PASNY, as a public entity, would be paying no taxes. And the Cementon site was smack in the middle of the view to the south from Olana. There was absolutely no reason why the communities would welcome these proposals, and opposition was pretty universal. The Cementon Civic Association, led by John Nicklolitch, officially joined the opposition.

I was relatively new to Greene County. I had grown up in the Berkshires, but had moved to Catskill when I got married. I had studied art history in college, but the Hudson River School was not given a lot of attention at the time. When I was teaching art in Catskill, I showed a third grade class some slides I had borrowed from the National Gallery. A little red-headed boy piped up and said his great grandfather had been a painter and that some of his work hung in museums. I asked him who his great grandfather was, and he replied “Thomas Cole.” He said he had his own Cole painting. The next week when the class met again, his mother brought the painting to school so we could study it. I also learned Cole was buried in the cemetery across the street from the school. Thus began my personal study of the Hudson River School, Cole, Church, Olana, the Catskill Mountain House, and all the other rich history of the area.

I had been introduced to Olana in 1966 when I took a tour with other teachers in the Hudson City School District. A group had formed to raise money to match State funds to purchase Olana, and the money it raised from these tours went to that fund. After Olana became a state park, it became my family’s back yard. We walked, went sliding and skating, and because sometimes we were the only people on the site, felt like it was our own private paradise.

The nuclear siting process began with a public hearing at which anyone could speak. As an Athens Village Trustee, I had prepared an opposition statement which I was to read on behalf of the Village government. When I heard the PASNY presenters say the nuclear plant would fit right into the landscape, I tore up my prepared statement and said that anyone who thought that power plant would fit into the landscape didn’t know what they were talking about.

Greene County, the Town and Village of Athens, and the Town and Village of Catskill joined together to participate in the siting hearings and retained Attorney Albert K. Butzel of the renowned Storm King Mountain case to represent them. The municipalities and CPHV had an informal understanding that the municipalities would participate in the siting hearings and CPHV would go to court if the hearings did not yield a denial of the application.

CPHV began raising money with bake sales, garage sales, popcorn sales at special movie showings, and sale of note cards and other memorabilia showing the culture and beauty of the area. Susan Lawlor, Mike and Sally Talley, and Lee and Pauline Davis from Catskill; John Nickolitch from Cementon, and I joined Mary Berner and others from Athens in spearheading this effort. Many others joined us in the fight, contributing untold hours of volunteer service. People began documenting historic resources in the area, which led to the listing of two historic districts on the National Register of Historic Places, one in Catskill and one in Athens.

Meanwhile, Al Butzel called me to talk more about the impacts on the view from Qiana. Greene County had hired me as their environmental analyst and I began reading PASNY’s voluminous application. In consultation with Al Butzel and George Pulver, the County Attorney, we developed our case. We would base our arguments against the plant on historic, visual, and socio-economic impacts. Wint Aldrich contacted me and showed me the historic estates in Columbia and Dutchess Counties which would be impacted by the plants, and I took him and their consultants on a tour of our historic and scenic resources. The opposition was now united on both sides of the Hudson River.

To husband the limited financial resources of the municipalities, Greene County arranged with Al Butzel that I would represent the municipalities in the administrative hearings and he would be a phone call away if I needed his advice on legal matters, such as how to respond to motions. So there I was, at a table with representatives of the State and Federal agencies, cross examining PASNY witness. Our table had about five people around it. Other than the three administrative law judges at the head table, PASNY took up the rest of the room-two rows of attorneys and one of consultants. It truly felt like a David and Goliath situation. One of the most memorable days at the hearings for me was when we all trouped over to the State Museum where there happened to be an exhibit of Hudson River School paintings, including Frederic Church’s view from Olana in winter. It showed clearly the exact site where PASNY proposed to build the nuclear plant with its cooling towers and attendant plumes. The plumes would have been the largest and most visible on clear winter days, just like the one Church had depicted in his painting.

When it was the turn of the intervening parties to present their cases, the briefs from the State and Federal agencies, Greene County and its municipalities, and the non-profit groups all showed significant opposition to the nuclear plant. The NRC testimony declared Olana a national treasure. PASNY withdrew its application. The hearings were over, and our seven year fight ended.

CPHV continued addressing regional concerns until recently, when the remaining members established a scholarship for Catskill High School graduates going on to major in environmental studies.

I never returned to teaching art. Instead I got a Masters Degree in Public Administration and became Executive Director of the Heritage Task Force for the Hudson River Valley, a quasi-public non-profit now known as the Greenway. While I was with the Task Force, we saved four Hudson River lighthouses, established a scenic roads program, and developed the documentation for designating the Mid-Hudson Shorelands Scenic District in Columbia and Dutchess Counties under Article 49 of the NYS Environmental Conservation Law. Later I went to work in the NYS Coastal Management Program and developed documentation for designating the Hudson River Shorelands Scenic Area of Statewide Significance, which reaches from Columbia and Greene Counties to the Hudson Highlands, including, of course, Olana and its viewshed. While I was working on the designation, Jim Ryan, the site manager, took me to the roof of Olana to view a sunset that was as spectacular as those painted by Church. I loved every minute of my work and feel grateful and honored to have been part of such a significant fight. My husband and I still walk at Olana and stop to gaze at the view to the south, remembering how we once could have lost it. And now I have time to do my own paintings of that view.