We stopped the Premium Energy project by mobilizing ourselves from the bottom up, being passionate about the area we live in, forging a group that was willing to work together on a common goal, without regard to partisan differences, and wanting to prevent a sad chapter of local history from repeating itself.
The Coalition initially began with two close friends sharing a fear of losing their homes and quality of life. We found out about the proposed project in our town of West Shokan from the Kingston Freeman’s reporting by William Kemble. When we learned more, we realized that both of our homes would be in danger. Wendy’s home would have become worthless, without the benefit of even an eminent domain payout. Michelle would have lost her property too, but would have probably received some inadequate compensation. The prospect of losing our homes made us extremely motivated to take action.
We researched to find out more about the project. We then prepared a flyer to hand out to our neighbors. The flyer included maps prepared by Wendy’s husband, who is a Licensed Professional Engineer. The hand-out also presented detailed information, showing how our neighbors would be personally affected.
We had already decided to hold a Zoom meeting for concerned citizens and included that in the flyer. Since this was happening at the height of Covid, the idea of coming together in person was not an option. We asked everyone to share the information with friends who might also be impacted or just interested. Everyone was welcome. Wendy would lead the meeting and Michelle would handle the Zoom tech part.
The next step was to go door-to-door in our town of West Shokan to inform our neighbors of the threat. We left flyers at almost 100 homes. Passing out the flyers was tedious and time consuming because we were not permitted to leave them in mailboxes. So, we had to drive up to every home, walk to every front door and tape the flyer to each door. Sometimes people were home and were eager to talk about the project. Most people had only heard vaguely about it, if at all.
We went simultaneously to the Town of Olive Supervisor, a Democrat, for help. Michelle and her husband, who was a former Town Board member and a Republican, had a long and productive meeting there to share information and strategize together. The fact that our opposition to the project was so unified and completely devoid of politics, both at the inception and throughout the process, was really a remarkable feat in early 2021. Wendy went twice to the Olive Town Board virtually to plead for their official assistance, which we received.
One of the other pieces that added a unique perspective to all this was that the Town of Olive had already been partially destroyed 100 years ago, when the Ashokan Reservoir was first built. Many homes were flooded at that time and graves had to be moved. The idea that these same graves, now in a cemetery in West Shokan, would have to be moved once again was poignant. Much of that sad history is preserved at the Olive Free Library, right next to the site where the proposed power plant would have been located. The irony of the situation only added to our passion to protect our homes and our Town.
The Town of Olive Supervisor Jim Sofranko heard through the grapevine that Shandaken was aware of the project and was also trying to organize itself in opposition. One of the possible, but less likely, locations for the project was in their town. The other possible location was in the Town of Hunter in the hamlet of Lanesville.
Olive Supervisor, Jim Sofranko, gave Ginger Strand’s contact information to Wendy. Ginger, who is a local environmental writer, also spoke to the Olive Town Board to educate them about hydropower. She was also connected to Kathy Nolan of the group Catskill Mountainkeeper. By reaching out to the Shandaken groups, the multiple affected communities began to come together.
The Olive Supervisor understandably did not have the time to actively fight this problem full-time. But, he did make the connections, get the Town of Olive to formally object to the proposal and always stayed in the loop about what was happening, offering helpful suggestions and contacts. He also lobbied heavily against the project with other government officials.
Given the large response to our initial Zoom meeting, we made a personal decision to organize our opposition group into committees. An Executive Committee was formed at that time, composed of the Committee heads and us. We decided to stay in a leadership role and function as a central clearing house, rather than work on particular committees. The original Committees and their goals were:
- Media—to give us a voice and publicize quickly
- Community Outreach—to get individuals involved and help them oppose the proposed project in a constructive way
- Organization Outreach—to obtain support from groups like the Audubon Society, Sierra Club, etc.
- Legislative Outreach—to get the backing of government officials
- Research—to learn more about hydropower, so we could contest the application from both technical and legal perspectives
- FERC—to focus strictly on the complicated Federal regulatory process
We began having Zoom meetings on a regular basis and named the group The Coalition to Save the Catskill Preserve.
The Media Committee rapidly put together an outstanding website which really helped to mobilize and educate the general public (savecatskillspreserve.org). Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts were also quickly established. It helped that many of the volunteers involved in this part of our work were media professionals. We rented a Post Office Box (to have a return address) but did not, and have not, formed a non-profit corporation yet.
By sheer luck, the people who came out to volunteer and lead the committees (none of whom we knew before), turned out to be equally motivated. They were also highly intelligent, experienced, hard-working, thoughtful, reliable, friendly and kind. We worked well together and could not have asked for a better leadership group. Special recognition goes to Caryn Carter, Leanne Avery, Jack O’Connell, Lloyd Hofstatter, Daniel Morgan, and Cliff and Melissa Rabuffo. We like and respect them all. The strength of this leadership group was strictly good fortune.
It was enormously time-intensive to do all this. We were consumed for what felt like an eternity, but was really only about 8 weeks.
We acted with extreme urgency. Passion and advocacy were part of our force. We were not actually fighting the power plant itself at this time. We were really fighting the Federal government granting permission to perform a series of “studies” about the viability of a hydroelectric plant in the area. Those studies would have cost the company “only” about $5 million. However, our sense was that our best chance of stopping the plant was to block this proactively, before any money was invested (beyond the salaries of the staff that put the idea together on paper). Once the company spent $5 million, we believed they would have a much stronger interest in proceeding with the hydropower plant and would likely dig in.
In the end, the Coalition got almost 1,600 people to write letters opposing the project. (This California company typically had 40-50 letters in opposition to their previous projects.) There were over a dozen organizations supporting us, including the Onteora School District. We had some (honestly, not enough) legislators, like Michelle Hinchey, support our position and bring attention to our cause.
But, in truth, we believe that it was ultimately New York City’s strong and public opposition to the project and its impact on the City’s drinking water that convinced Premium Energy to withdraw the proposal (at least for now). New York City would have been just too strong an adversary for a relatively small company to battle.
Despite this remarkable victory, we are not at all certain that Premium Energy (or some company like them) will stay away permanently. So, our Coalition remains alive and we all remain vigilant.
Michelle Friedel & Wendy Wolfenson, Co-founders and Co-chairs