The closing of the Catskill plant was as necessary as it was inevitable.
Inevitable, due to both the nature of Holcim’s international business model and this particular plant’s challenges. And necessary, to safeguard the health of thousands of downwind neighbors.
As a vast global corporation, Holcim wants to reap big profit margins from very large plants which can dominate their regional markets. They no longer have much interest in running smaller, less efficient facilities with narrow profit margins.
While Holcim failed to build such a plant in Columbia County, Lafarge in Ravena stole a march on its Swiss competitors, and is poised to vastly expand their plant to the north in Rensselaer County. Even if Catskill could expand, Lafarge’s head start would largely foil Holcim’s preferred modus operandi, which is to lock up markets, then bleed them dry. Millions of dollars in fines for price-fixin are, after all, a documented part of their track record.
Moreover, as an older plant with many maintenance and safety issues—having been hit with hundreds of thousands in fines over the past few years—the Catskill kiln was increasingly a drag on the company’s bottom line. Coupled with a national economic downturn—far from being immune to recessions, cement plants closely track building trends—there simply wasn’t much money in that site at that scale.
But any major expansion in scale and technology would necessitate a new permitting process, much ike the failed Greenport one. Despite efforts during the Bush administration to gut NSR (New Source Review), the Catskill plant would clearly be subject to such regulatory oversight. It would again need some 14-20 different permits from local, county, State and Federal agencies.
That would mean a risky new investment of tens of millions on a highly-speculative venture, in a location where citizens had already demonstrated the tenacity and means to mount a prolonged, well- informed opposition. They again could expect a long, expensive, and low-percentage fight against residents all over Columbia, Berkshire, Dutchess, Litchfield, and other downwind counties.
Worse for Holcim, the Catskill location is squarely within the famous southwestern viewshed of Olana, and any expansion there would impact a Scenic Area of Statewide Significance—again, guaranteeing a difficult, stringent review, with many or all of the same 30+ groups which opposed the SLC project to weigh in all over again. And this time, they wouldn’t be starting from scratch, but would have a world of knowledge, contacts, expertise and organizing know-how to bring to bear.
Moreover, the limestone reserves at Catskill would not justify such an investment, even if the permitting were successful.
The Holcim board (and the investors who track its stock) never behaved particularly rationally or cleverly here. But the $58 million they flushed down the drain the last time they tried such a move is hard even for overconfident, negligent corporate officers to overlook.
As for economic development: Again and again, planners and residents and businesspeople here have agreed that the long-range goal has to be sustainable, compatible and contextual projects which complement each other and build upon the strengths of the region.
Most who worked at Holcim (SLC) Catskill knew this was coming long ago, and many moved on to other work already since the multiple rounds of job eliminations and layoffs began about five years ago. Finding a new job is possible; finding a new lung isn’t. The thousands of residents downwind of Catskill are much better off.
Those who now call the closing a “tragedy” (including some, like Linda Mussmann, who once berated this company as an “awful mega-corporation” whose goal is “to take more than it can ever ever give back”) evidently don’t consider it tragic when kids get asthma or grandparents are told they have cancer.
In December 2003, Linda Mussmann called St. Lawrence Cement (now Holcim) an “awful mega-corporation” whose "goal" is “to take more than it can ever ever give back.”
Now she considers the departure of that company a "tragedy."
At Catskill, the company was indeed taking from our communities (by polluting the lungs and crops of its downwind neighbors) more than it ever gave back. Meanwhile, they’ve grieved their taxes on both sides of the river repeatedly, while others pay their full share.
The SLC Catskill plant emitted mercury, arsenic, lead and fine particulate matter into the air and water of its neighbors for many years. It was heavily fined in 2008 for some 300 safety violations, putting its workers at risk. It was photographed by Riverkeeper releasing large plumes of waste materials into the river... These were not the actions of a good neighbor.
Other companies bring good, safe jobs to our area without controversy, without dividing people, and without causing others harm. We should build an economy based on mutual respect, not profiting at others’ expense. Naturally, we as a country should “make things.” But we can and should manufacture make things in a manner which doesn’t selfishly and recklessly take other things from others--essential things, like our health.
Businesses like L’Eurial and Etsy promise as many or more jobs than Catskill ever provided—with none of the downside impacts, none of the controversy, and far more prospects of surviving future economic turbulence. That’s where our focus should be, rather than attempting to reinvent a brief 1950s industrial heyday, which is not coming back, no matter how nostalgic some might be for it.