June 21st, 2001, was an uncomfortable day by any standard. The temperature around Hudson reached 90 degrees, and humidity averaged 87%—running all the way up to 100% at its peak. The afternoon was punctuated by downpours and thunderstorms, literal and figurative.
This was also the day that an estimated 1,000 citizens turned out for a public hearing on the St. Lawrence Cement proposal. It began at 10 am in the gymnasium of Columbia-Greene Community College, which had no air conditioning. Administrative Law Judge Helene Goldberger finally closed the session nearly 15 hours later, at 12:40 am.
Concerned—correctly—that it would be outnumbered at the hearing, the cement company set up an operation to bus folks to its headquarters on Route 9, offering them a free meal and a t-shirt in exchange for appearing at the hearing. Many did not realize that they were expected to speak on the company’s behalf. Though they were also provided with magazines (labeled “property of St. Lawrence Cement”), most of those shanghaied to Columbia-Greene left long before their names were called.
Not so with plant opponents, many of whom waited all day for a chance to be heard.
In the evening, one of the late speakers was Mary Davidson. She had signed up to speak at 3 o’clock, and waited through many sweltering hours to be called to the microphone. Unlike most of the attendees, Davidson was not a stranger to the venue: A professor at Columbia-Greene, her office was not far away. Here is what she said to Judge Goldberger:
MARY DAVIDSON: I'll be brief because much of what I was going to say has already been said by other people. I expected to talk about three this afternoon.
I am a taxpayer in the town of Claverack. I've lived here since 1977, and I'm on the faculty of this beloved institution for 24 years. But let me make my point clear. I do not speak for this institution, but I do speak as an educator on the faculty.
I teach social sciences, classes—psychology, sociology and social work. I'm currently teaching a social problems class focusing on the environment, which I’ve designed specifically around the areas of St. Lawrence Cement, Athens Generating and the dredging of the Hudson River.
As a concerned social scientist, I recognize the need that people have for well paying, quality jobs. Indeed, it pains me to look out amongst the audience today and see many friends and workers that I know in this community who are so desperate for decent employment that they are supporting this cement plant.
This company is not going to provide in the long run well-paying jobs for a number of people; not even in the short run.
But even if they were, why must it pay at the expense of our health in order for that to take place? If the local elected officials in this community were doing their job, we should be able to have decent employment without work ruining our health.
I’m a mother and also a grandmother and I would like my grandchildren to grow up to be healthy. What a choice we have, to be able to have well-paying jobs at the expense of our health, or be able to have good health at the expense of not having any jobs?
It’s time for this community to wake up. Are we not able to trust the testimony of our very own local hospital officials who have adamantly stated over and over and over that this plant is going to ruin the lives and health of all of us?
I’m going to cut it here, I think. I just wanted to go on record as saying I’m a opposed to this plant for the sake of the health and well-being of all of us and future generations to come. Thank you very much.
A native of Buffalo and graduate of SUNY New Paltz, Mary taught Human Services for 30 years at Columbia-Greene. Indeed, she was among the original faculty at the college when it opened in Greenport. At her memorial in 2011, her daughter noted that she “was an activist her whole life for woman’s rights and social justice.”
What I remembered most about Mary’s involvement in the cement battle was her tenaciousness. As the Polaroid photo above shows, she not just determined, but also confident, that justice would prevail. An email she sent in 2003 to a group of activists said: “The world needs more people who are willing to sacrifice to do the right thing.”