On September 13th, I joined SeaChange: We All Live Downstream for the last leg of a two-week voyage down the Hudson River. The voyage — a collaboration between a Brooklyn-based art collective Mare Liberum and global climate change activist group 350.org — made nine stops in communities along the Hudson, highlighting sites of resistance to environmental threats to the region. SeaChange’s participants worked with local groups to organize community events along their route in order to encourage the development of future activist and artistic collaborations and to highlight the interconnected nature of the Hudson Valley region.
SeaChange’s choice of vessel — a paper boat — references a point in history when the Hudson River played a more central role in the region. In the late 19th century, cities like Newburgh, Yonkers, Troy, and New York relied on the river for transportation, economic development, and recreation. At the same time, rapid industrial development during this period contributed to long-term environmental pollution affecting the Hudson Valley today. Elisha Waters and Sons, a boatbuilding company based in Troy, was the largest producer of boats in the United States. The company patented a design for a cheap and light boat made out of manila paper. The paper boat’s popularity was relatively short-lived. A fire in the Elisha Waters and Sons factory coincided with technological improvements that eased the mass manufacturing of wooden boats. Paper boats went largely forgotten for over 100 years until Mare Liberum revived Waters’ technique for this project and their larger boat building practice. The SeaChange fleet was constructed out of craft paper, wood glue, a little bit of wood, and shellac.
The SeaChange voyage originated in Troy, the city that popularized the paper boat, on August 30th. From there, the flotilla traveled eight miles down the Hudson to Albany for a public forum on the transportation of crude oil through the Hudson Valley. This issue has recently become a focus for environmental groups in New York State, because of a major increase of shipments through the region. During the voyage, SeaChange learned more about this emerging issue from state-wide groups like Riverkeeper and Sane Energy Project, as well as hyperlocal groups like the Newburgh Boat Club.
Crude oil is naturally occurring, and when extracted, is processed into gasoline, jet fuel, and other petroleum products. According to Riverkeeper, the oil industry has used existing transportation infrastructure — including rail and barges — to create a “virtual pipeline” for crude oil. The Hudson Valley segment of this pipeline moves a highly volatile type of crude oil by rail from the Bakken shale formation of North Dakota to the Port of Albany.
Every day, two trains, with 100 or more tanker cars each, carry the highly explosive Bakken crude along the Hudson and through multiple cities to Albany. Riverkeeper has found that 75% of these tanker cars lack basic protective features, such as pressurized tanks and puncture-proof hulls. As a result, some rail workers call these tanker cars bomb trains.
New York City is not insulated from the unsafe transit of highly explosive materials along the Hudson River upstate. Albany is a three-hour drive away from New York City. An oil spill along the route would not only cause severe damage to the Hudson River but could also threaten our city’s water supply.
Global Partners — one of the largest petroleum distributors in the US — has also begun the process of developing additional oil processing infrastructure along the Hudson River. The company has thus far targeted cities like Newburgh, which suffer from severe post-industrial disinvestment and are starved for economic development opportunities. The prospect of additional oil processing infrastructure, considering the poor safety practices along the “virtual pipeline,” is dangerous for the city and the region as a whole. As put by Dylan Gauthier, an artist and co-founder of Mare Liberum, and one of the lead organizers of the SeaChange project, “companies like Global Partners are capitalizing on the poverty, absence of resources, and lack of public attention to places like Newburgh.”
In Newburgh and Albany, SeaChange partnered with local groups on public presentations about the virtual pipeline. Other stops focused on longstanding environmental threats to the region. The group landed in Peekskill on September 9th, and participated in a discussion about the continuing efforts to close the Indian Point nuclear power plant with Riverkeeper, Indian Point Safe Energy Coalition, and Nuclear Information and Resource Service. Some stops were more geared toward promoting boating and water access on the Hudson. The group organized a boat-building workshop in Hudson on September 2nd and a boat-themed discussion over a potluck dinner at the Ossining Boat and Canoe Club on September 11th.
One of SeaChange’s goals was to draw a connection between the “two sides of the river,” between those cities that have experienced a cultural resurgence in recent years and those that remain crippled by disinvestment and abandonment. According to Gauthier, established environmental organizations like Riverkeeper have begun to work with local groups to mount a regional response to the dangers of the virtual pipeline and the development of new oil processing facilities on the Hudson. As groups begin to work together in opposition to the virtual pipeline, Gauthier sees a coalition building opportunity across the economic lines that have historically divided the region.
While the SeaChange voyage focused on issues specific to the Hudson Valley region, it can be linked to other environmental justice struggles. As we search for a viable energy source to replace oil, poorer regions bear the burden of both the potential danger of environmental disasters (i.e., fracking in disinvested towns across the US) and the negative effects of climate change (i.e., climate change vulnerability of developing nations).
SeaChange’s organizers are developing narratives and materials to share the lessons they have learned and extend their vision to a global scale. To keep up with future iterations of the project, visit seachange2014.tumblr.com.