Just over a year ago, several days after Hurricane Irene had left almost every home in our village in ruins, I found myself in our wreckage-strewn backyard on Main Street in Schoharie when half a dozen or so volunteers in management positions within New York state government stopped to talk with me before they left.
Their T-shirts identified the men and women as part of Gov. Cuomo’s volunteer initiative, and I’d seen them policing up the yard and assisting with hauling out our trashed belongings from inside the house. I wasn’t particularly fit for conversation when they gathered around me to offer what moral support they could. One of the volunteers mentioned that he could see our house had been beautiful, and he asked if we planned to stay and rebuild or to leave.
Still reeling from the trauma of the event, I recall mustering up something to the effect of this: “I don’t know how we can stay. This is the third flood we’ve endured, and each one has been of a much worse magnitude. On top of that, for nearly eight years we’ve been fighting a quarry determined to mine away precious farmland that is the eastern wall of our pre-Revolutionary War era village. Beyond that, we just heard that hydrofracking companies are trying to buy up land rights to acreage in our county. It all feels so hopeless right now.”
It happened that one of the volunteers holds a prominent position within the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation. He spoke to assure me that strict laws safeguarding New York’s citizenry from negative consequences of hydrofracking were in the works, and soon would be in place. He also said he was familiar with our community’s fight against local quarry expansion and we could well prevail on that issue.
Weeks later, with that DEC officer’s assurance and vote of confidence in a corner of my mind; more volunteer assistance than we had any right to expect; the New York City Department of Environmental Protection’s announced mega-project to, however reluctantly, get into the flood control business with new floodgates, siphons and the like at the Gilboa Dam; and a passion for the beauty of the Schoharie Valley that falls beyond just logical considerations, my wife and I chose to stay and rebuild.
No sooner had we made this decision, however, than yet another threat surfaced.
Newspaper reports said that not just one, but at least two pipeline companies had decided that, being a rural county, our land is fit as a corridor for gas pipelines. The first design of the Continental Pipeline was set to run directly through the town of Schoharie.
Residents, our regional newspaper, and even a couple of our state level politicians spoke publicly of the inadvisability of that route.
While the federal government’s Environmental Protection Agency questioned the very need for a new pipeline, a second route was proposed by the company, one that would “run alongside” I-88, a route that runs from Binghamton to Schenectady. This was viewed as far less intrusive on the part of some, and even embraced here and there.
Effect on neighbors
I was mulling over the particulars of this secondary route, reading the company’s predictable “existing pipelines are inadequate” response to EPA’s challenge, when close friends who live atop a mountain overlooking the village of Richmondville and I-88 called me to say they had just received a letter and a map from Continental Pipeline, showing how the “I-88 Plan” would see the pipeline running through their property, close enough to their round pen (built to exercise a pair of rescue horses) that it would have to be taken down. One of our sons helped our friends build that round pen.
The pen, and indeed the entire house and grounds have been as lovingly upgraded as imaginable over the past 15 years. Every inch of flooring and trim has been replaced, new windows installed, the kitchen beautifully renovated, a barn built, fencing, terraced stone walls and patios erected, and most all of it by sweat equity from the owners themselves.
Our friends are crushed. They feel vulnerable and angry. In the midst of totally rebuilding their basement into a fully usable space this summer, they are hit with the news that their relatively small patch of precious real estate is in the path of what a company with no interest in Schoharie’s future calls “progress.”
Ask the residents of Blenheim, in southern Schoharie County, how reliable the promises of a pipeline’s safety are. Ask random realtors — not the PR guy for the company — about what happens to the value of properties through which a pipeline passes.
Ask yourself how you would feel getting such news about your property.
We in Schoharie are weary of all the assaults, whether we live at the base of a mountain, or atop it. We are not selfish people who don’t wish to do their part for the greater good. We are not fairly called “anti-quarrying” because we don’t want our streets turned into an increased parade of stone trucks, noise and dust, even more blasting, and the verdant fields uphill of our village traded for mined pits. Nor is it accurate to call us “anti-progress” because we wish not to have our homes regarded as nonentities fit for encroachment on the part of pipeline companies.
More voices needed
Schoharie’s town supervisor, Gene Milone, a principled civic leader, has been eloquent and ahead of the curve in fighting for a sustainable future for our area. Sadly, few regional and state officials have added their voice to his. I think it’s safe to say that Gov. Cuomo certainly didn’t send his staff to volunteer in the cleanup in Schoharie merely to prep it as a route for a pipeline.
It should not be asking too much to be treated with a modicum of respect, as though those of us living in rural areas have lives that are worth something. With every assault on the viability of Schoharie as a place to live, our properties and quality of life suffer, and we become increasingly susceptible to the next industrial plan that finds our region ripe for exploitation.
Flooding in the Schoharie valley is a fact of life, though the New York City DEP can help control the volume of it. However, it takes only the New York state government — beginning with our local representatives — to start speaking in unison to stop the onrush to exploit, and thereby destroy, an historical area where people wish to embrace a rural way of life in relative peace. Is that too much to ask?
- Tom Smith lives in Schoharie. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section. -