Pandemic and Pollution in the Hudson River Valley

Picture of outside in Poughkeepsie NYCOVID-19 offered a short pause in the continuous polluting of the Hudson River Valley. What does this mean for reopening?

COVID-19 lockdowns hindered human activity and travel, while posing an economic setback to stores, restaurants and institutions like Marist College. But the lockdowns also offered a brief respite from continuous damage to the environment. It’s time to learn from the region’s environmental history and start giving back. 

The Hudson River represented a significant factor in New York City’s economic growth and reputation as a cultural capital in the U.S. and the world. In the 19th century, the river was used as a means of transportation to bring people and resources down to New York City. In fact, the wealthiest members of society would retreat to their estates upriver as a getaway from the city that they invested so much into building. 

It was actually the urban elite’s presence upriver that enabled institutions of higher learning to emerge in Dutchess County. The county also welcomed famed painters and architects. Marist College roots trace back to the early 20th century. A few decades later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt opened his library and museum in Hyde Park; since 1941, it has drawn millions of people from every tier of society to Dutchess County. Also in 1941, IBM purchased the Poughkeepsie campus. Their vast operations in the following decades would continue to reshape Dutchess County’s landscape.  

The industrialization of Poughkeepsie and the rest of Dutchess County has had profound effects on the local ecosystem. As cities grew, sewage drainage mounted. An estimated 150 gallons of raw sewage flowed into the river from Manhattan on a daily basis until 1986, with the establishment of the North River sewage treatment plant. Aside from discharges, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) polluted the Hudson River. PCBs are considered a carcinogen risk, and while these chemicals were hit with a U.S manufacturing ban, the contamination persists. Last year, New York State sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over their lack of accountability towards General Electric Co., responsible for around 650 tons of PCBs contaminating the Hudson River over the course of three decades. 

These environmental hazards pose an even greater threat now. People who have contracted pre-existing conditions due to extended exposure to pollutants now battle exacerbated risks of contracting disease. 

The positive impacts of lockdowns –– well documented in New York State and around the world –– could assist here. A few months ago, the world was awed by photos before and after COVID-19 shutdowns; most of these changes resulted from a decrease in traffic and industrial activity. In New York specifically, researchers at Columbia University reported that carbon monoxide emissions had dropped by around 50%. 

While COVID-19 may have incited positive environmental changes, the impact on the rest of society should also be noted. People have lost their lives during this pandemic. The economy took a major hit, with factory production halted worldwide and millions of jobs lost in the U.S. and elsewhere. This prompted debate about whether the pandemic lockdowns have helped the environment or if the situation will only deteriorate because Americans will try to compensate for all that they’ve missed during lockdown. 

The environmental issues that persisted before the pandemic cannot be ignored or forgotten going forward. Tainted water in New Paltz and toxic water in Newburgh. These problems must be tackled for the overall health of the population in Dutchess County. While it is unrealistic to expect the economy to halt forever, there must be a way to make the way we operate more eco-friendly. There must be greater care to the environment in order to preserve it. 

The Hudson River Valley could benefit from environmental efforts by New York State. On April 1, New York State banned plastic bags. Due to current health concerns, this has been inconsistently enforced. Activists are hoping that the ban will be enforced to the fullest extent as the state reopens, which would hinder harmful environmental repercussions, specifically for marine life. 

While, of course, systematic reform is necessary for sweeping changes, there are ways to limit the harm that humans perpetuate in some capacity. Marist College supports local sustainability initiatives, and the college itself is part of a few of these programs. Also, an institution, Marist has committed to a multitude of on-campus initiatives to solidify the school’s support of the Hudson River Valley’s ecosystem. Many would do well to follow and further the college’s steps. 

The amount of people who have benefited because of the Hudson River Valley is immeasurable. Its resources have allowed one of the greatest cities in the world to prosper into its current glory. Now, it’s time to give back. 

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