Writer Lis Harris followed Allen Hershkowitz through his ill-fated attempt to bring a paper recycling mill to the South Bronx. Harris tells the story, chronicled in her new book “Tilting at Mills,” in an interview with host Laura Knoy.
KNOY: Welcome to Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy, sitting in for Steve Curwood. And this is Allen Hershkowitz, a staff scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, from a story that aired on Living on Earth back in 1998.
HERSHKOWITZ: We're going to be producing less CO2 than virgin mills. We're going to be producing less sulphur dioxides than virgin mills, less nitrogen oxides, less particles. We're going to save 3.4 million trees a year. We're going to save 10,000 acres of forest a year.
KNOY: At the time, Mr. Hershkowitz and the environmental group NRDC were charging full-steam ahead with plans to build a state-of-the-art recycled paper mill in the South Bronx. The goal was hundreds of jobs for neighborhood residents, eco-friendly paper for New York's huge publishing industry, and a pioneering partnership between business and environmental groups.
Didn't quite turn out that way, though. After eight years of community conflicts, politics, and financial setbacks, the dream collapsed. Lis Harris covered the story for The New Yorker magazine as it unfolded. Now she's written a book about the woebegone paper plant called “Tilting at Mills: Green Dreams, Dirty Dealings and the Corporate Squeeze.” She says it all started with Allen Hershkowitz and the NRDC, and their idea that environmental groups should be more proactive about pollution.
HARRIS: So he thought, all right, let's do it ourselves. Let's design something from the ground up. And let's make business see that this is something that they can make a profit from. And let's get a community--instead of being our enemies, or the enemy of a project--in on it. And he, with great good luck, he found a superb Swedish paper company developer, his name is Per Batelson, who was as enthusiastic as he was about the environmental aspect of production in the paper industry, and shared his dismay about the way things were and had been going. The paper industry is one of the most conservative in the world. It's been using methods that it's used since the middle of the 19th century, it hasn't changed them, and they have no interest in changing.
So they got together and it went--it started off with a tremendous bang. Everybody was very enthusiastic. The city was enthusiastic, the Department of Sanitation was looking for markets for its paper, and it started out very well.
KNOY: If all had gone according to plan, what kind of facility would we see today in the South Bronx?
HARRIS: We would have seen a state-of-the-art, 100 percent recycled, chlorine-free newsprint mill that was designed by environmentalists to repair environmental damage, clean up a contaminated industrial site, alleviate poverty in the South Bronx--which is a chronically depressed area. It would have recycled 400,000 tons of waste paper each year and used and recycled hundreds of millions of gallons of contaminated sewage water. And it would have been the largest industrial manufacturing facility to come to the city since the second World War.
KNOY: You mentioned, also, economic benefits. What type of jobs were we talking about, and how many?
HARRIS: The highest estimation was around 600 permanent jobs. There would have, of course, been many thousands of construction jobs, but probably around 600 permanent jobs for people in that community. And also designed into the project, very unusually for a large industrial project, were benefits to the community--a health facility, a learning center--because part of the structure of the plant was to include a community development group in the structure of the way it was run.
KNOY: It really sounds like a utopian dream, you know, jobs and daycare and healthcare and everything.
HARRIS: Well, it was designed so that these groups who, over the last several decades, have always been at each other's throats--either in court or at hearings--businesspeople, enviros, community activists. It was designed so that the barriers toward making projects that were good for business so they could make money; good for the environment so they could be built well, good for the community so they could get jobs, would finally be working together instead of always being at each other's throats. That was the idea.
KNOY: So, when did the trouble start?
HARRIS: A ripple of trouble that was very shocking started at the very beginning, when the--Allen and the people he was working with, and some city officials--went to Stockholm to meet with the people from the Swedish company. And the mood was incredibly up and exciting and happy and optimistic.
And around that period, not long afterward, someone from the group the South Bronx Clean Air Coalition asked Hershkowitz for some money in order to not make trouble for them. And as far as Allen was concerned, since their aims were only good for the community and benign in terms of environmental impacts, he couldn’t imagine what they were talking about, and he asked what trouble. And he was just told in a sort of vague way that there would be trouble, but it could be helped if some money could be given to this person. And that was the beginning of a climate of accusation from that group-- because the money was never forthcoming--and a lot of stirring up of opposition that dogged them really throughout the project.
KNOY: Well, who were the major opponents?
HARRIS: Well, as I say in the book, this was a death by a thousand cuts. The paper industry, according to many people in the paper industry I talked to behind the scenes, was working in sort of various nefarious ways. They kept throwing sort of sums of money at the project, making the people think that they were behind it, and they would withdraw at the last minute. There were a lot of nasty politics afoot.
KNOY: I was really struck, Lis, by how many classic conflicts that always come up in American society--white/black conflict, Democrat/Republican conflict, sometimes black/Latino conflict--all these classic conflicts landed on this poor project's head.
HARRIS: That's right. There's a great suspicion of environmentalists and white people, in general, who come into poor neighborhoods where there are a lot of people of color. For one thing, a lot of community activists have the view, which is a correct view, that environmentalists were notably absent when the dumps and incinerators were coming there, and they're very suspicious of their motives.
But this project was designed in such a benign way, from that point of view, and it was hard for people to accept that. The Bronx borough president was a Democrat, Mayor Giuliani was a Republican. The Bronx and its interests were very far from his political base. He was never--he made some sort of statement at the very beginning of this that it sounded good, and seemed to be behind it, but he never really did throw his support to it. Had he thrown his support to it, had the paper been promised all along from the beginning in a more definite way, I think the project might well have happened.
KNOY: You said earlier, Lis, that this was a project that died of a thousand cuts. What ultimately killed it?
HARRIS: I think two or three things, actually, ultimately killed it. One of them was the state. Governor Pataki was a big supporter of this, although on sort of a slightly--on an echelon slightly below him there were people who were not so behind it. But Governor Pataki many times helped this project with promises of bond support and all kinds of aid. In order for it to work, the community partner that they had, a group called Banana Kelly which was one of the shining stars of the community development movement for many decades--unfortunately, its leader became a not-good partner. She became sort of a slum lord, in fact. And having a group associated with this project that the Attorney General began to investigate, and that tenants complained about, was kind of one kiss of death for this. Because people could not support a project associated with somebody apparently doing things of the kind that she was.
And then the market turned bad for paper. It was a very good market when the project began. Two lawsuits became involved, and the second one frightened NRDC enough, because they were--although Allen had scores of people working with him--engineers, Merrill Lynch, business people of all kinds--he was seen as spearheading it, and they were very vulnerable. He was seen as a developer which he wasn't really. But he was a coordinator, and they withdrew from it. And I think the withdrawal of NRDC was the final kiss of death because then an ordinary, a large business took over. A construction company took over, and the aims became far more purely business aims, and it got too large, and it couldn't get the bonds. When it got too large, I think that was the kiss of death.
KNOY: The title of your book, “Tilting at Mills,” obviously refers to the story of Don Quixote and his fight with a windmill that he thought was a giant. Is, or should I say, was Allen Hershkowitz Don Quixote?
HARRIS: Actually, the title does not refer to Don Quixote…
KNOY: It does not? Okay.
HARRIS: No, it does not. The verb tilting--if you look it up in the dictionary, one of the meanings of it is simply charging, as in jousting. People charged against their enemies. And the sense of the book is really that he is trying to--well, he is trying to put the old chlorine-using, dioxin-producing, polluting mills either out of business, or getting them to see that some of them could use this. And, of course, some people regarded him as a Don Quixote figure. It seemed impossible to some of them.
But let's look at what really happened. I mean, many of the things that he wanted to happen, happened. The polluted site was cleaned up, the permits were gotten, hundreds of thousands of dollars--millions of dollars--were raised. There was a plan in place to change the water, the sewage water of New York City from Ward's Island, and make it into grey water to use there.
It's not that it couldn’t happen. It's that it couldn't happen at that point, and I don't think he is a cuckoo visionary at all. I think this actually will happen. Several things have to be in place. An industrialist has to be behind it. At the beginning of this project, there was a Swedish industrialist from the paper industry, very respected, behind it. That company unfortunately changed their global development plans and they withdrew. Had that company been in there, they might well have. And secondly, it has to have a civic leader, like a mayor, behind it. And this, unfortunately, this project did not have that.
KNOY: Lis Harris is a former staff writer at The New Yorker and author of the book “Tilting at Mills: Green Dreams, Dirty Dealings, and the Corporate Squeeze.” She is also an associate professor of writing at the School of Arts at Columbia University. Lis, thanks for joining us.
HARRIS: Thank you. I enjoyed it.
[MUSIC: Ali Akbar Khan “India Blue” A World Instrumental Collection Putumayo World Music (1996)]
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