Vol. 24 No. 9 (September 2014) pp. 504-506

FIGHTING WESTWAY by William W. Buzbee. Cornell University Press. 2014. 312pp. Hardback $79.95, paperback $24.95. ISBN: 978-0801479441

Reviewed by Nicholas Guehlstorf, Southern Illinois University,

FIGHTING WESTWAY is a fluid historical narrative that offers rich political discernments about a legendary case study of environmental politics. Buzbee’s chronological account and legal analysis of the rise and fall of the proposed redevelopment of an interstate along the Lower West Side of Manhattan island is accomplished with an inspirational, firsthand, objective, third-party storyline. This easy to read text has a comprehensive exploration of the key legal components of the ecological and economic battle in New York City that came to its political climax in the United States in the 1980s. The fourteen chapter book is very approachable to younger readers as the first couple pages draw parallels to Boston’s “Big Dig” transportation project and makes current references to the reconstruction efforts in New York after the loss of the twin towers. Further, the epilogue prompts the student of environmental law to consider how a similar science and citizen debate would fare today.

The author, an experienced environmental scholar, is insightful on numerous fronts but is profound when discussing what he refers to as the regulatory war. Buzbee describes regulatory wars as somewhere in between the law and politics with significant input from citizens who are invested in the issue at hand, politicians who may use the events to catapult their careers, interest groups who seek to protect specific assets, and governmental groups who may need to intervene (pp. 32-33). Buzbee’s war is not one of a simple policy dichotomy between green consciousness and unsustainable greed, rather, a drawn out legal melee stretched over four presidential administrations, resulting in shifting allegiances and varying political pressures for both State and Federal agencies caught up in the political fight. This impressive engineering project that was to be constructed with significant Federal monies created a coalition of environmental groups, local lawyers, citizen activists against New York City government, both of New York’s Senators, trade unions, real estate developers, and banks.

Westway—a reference noted by all environmental policy instructors—was a proposal to replace the West Side Highway in New York City, an elevated 1930 construction project that provided access to a once thriving port and section of the city. In 1971, regulators proposed to remodel the highway with a massive landfill 1,000 feet out into the Hudson River which would add 227 acres to Manhattan’s West Side. The infrastructure proposal drew notable opposition from environmentalists who were against filling in the waters of the already blighted Hudson River, as well as urban advocacy groups and citizens concerned about wasteful government spending and air pollution resulting from increased traffic. In the end, an environmental impact statement [*505] (EIS) requirement created a stumbling block for the project in the form of the striped bass, a species whose primary breeding grounds were located in the Hudson River and Chesapeake Bay. According to agency scientists at National Marine Fisheries and Fish and Wildlife Services, the area to be redeveloped was a crucial overwinter habitat for the threatened fish. Scientists involved in the study asserted that destruction of the ecosystem would lead to a considerable decline in the East coast striped bass population. The Army Corps of Engineers, which held responsibility for issuing permits, chose instead to cite the opinion of a biologist who asserted that the striped bass was a hearty and tough species able to sustain the effects of the fill. The EIS decision by the Corps was the final undoing of Westway, as two trials would later call the agency’s decision making into question following the discovery of inconsistencies between biological data and conclusions by other Federal agencies. The critical errors made by the Corps in regard to inconsistencies between the draft, supplemental, and final EIS created an “arbitrary and capricious” legal decision. Westway’s last chance lay with Congress, who voted to cut off the project’s funding days before the budget trade-in deadline. Drama continued, however, as trade-in funds were approved shortly after all was scuttled by Governor Mario Cuomo and Mayor Ed Koch.

Buzbee occasionally interrupts his lengthy history lesson with extraneous descriptions in an attempt to excite and entice different reader interests, a technique which unfortunately takes away from his own brilliant investigation. The desire to address a larger audience is admirable, but updating old news clippings with captions that correspond to the era’s prominent business and political figures is not needed. These current affairs and scandalous discussions, albeit entertaining, are distracting from the take-home message of the protracted legal battle: the ultimate decision on the project is attributed to regulatory science and judicial interpretation of environmental regulatory agency responsibilities. Buzbee brilliantly pens, “And when the fight eventually lands in court, victories secured before key regulatory agencies or political officials will be trumpeted to argue that the judge should show deference and keep out of the political realm. Victors before agencies will argue that courts should not displace the agency’s more expert and politically accountable judgments” (p. 44). Multiple audience scholarship seems to result in needless repetition or a senseless detail as the author repeatedly makes key points at various times to restate previous ideas for different perspectives. For instance, Buzbee doggedly explainsThe New York Department of Environment and Conservation permit for the project was held up by a failure of the Westway developers to prove that air pollution from the project would not be out of compliance with the requirements of New York’s State Implementation Plan for the Clean Air Act.This victory is not indispensable environmental history because it was short lived and the lengthy discussion of all the players is too thorough, since Westway’s planners simply modified their application to limit citizen exposure to highway pollution. Another limitation of FIGHTING WESTWAY is in regard to environmental justice, a concept that Buzbee acknowledges at points in the text but never [*506] actually deconstructs as a meritorious topic. Large-scale urban development projects are often promoted with the intent of revitalizing blighted areas and improving economic conditions within a city. Buzbee should have tapped into the contentious literature, scholarship, or advocacy of environmental justice because grand urban redevelopment enterprises are appealing to active citizens and government officials alike, but unserviceable to the silenced, disadvantaged, or marginalized at risk populations. Environmental justice was not formalized until after the Westway battle, and Buzbee missed a respectable opportunity to juxtapose environmental law and resource allocation in an urban area as he could have discussed the just argument of mass-transit ridership and exclusive benefits of massive construction projects.

These critiques aside, FIGHTING WESTWAY draws on an incredible amount of research from the primary actors in the courtroom battles that ultimately defined Westway’s place in history. The story is a thoroughly detailed look into how regulatory policies function, are challenged, and can be altered. The importance of citizen activism in holding the relevant agencies accountable is great because the intent of environmental laws via citizen-suit provisions is a lesson that needs to be understood by public administrators and politicians. Buzbee’s ability to address the middle ground between law and politics in which regulatory wars are fought by using a noteworthy historical framework allows students to gain an understanding of the varied influences in urban planning and development. The politics of Westway also provide insight into regulatory dysfunction, as both state and federal agencies contest each other’s administrative power and occasionally succumb to outside political pressure which culminates in poor administrative decision-making.

FIGHTING WESTWAY is an excellent case study that illustrates the numerous facets of environmental law, which captivates the reader in a holistic fashion better than any edited book of case studies. Those who supported the addition of a stretch of interstate roadway, including key federal figures as well as state and local heads, found their strength in numbers and the ability to access and acquire information surrounding the proposed project. The opponents--citizens, lawyers, and environmental researchers--found success in delays and the ability to dissect incorrectness in the powerbrokers and managerial elites’ arguments. In the fatal demise of the project, Buzbee asserts that supporters’ failure to erect five miles of interstate highway was of their own doing. Even with their seemingly endless access to data, engineering, and financial backing, the sad end was the result of inaccurate communication about key planning documents. FIGHTING WESTWAY does not affirm that the data provided in the course of the planning stages was knowingly altered; rather Buzbee offers a lesson that ignoring scientifically accessible risks signifies a clear regulatory error that needs to be comprehensively understood, not just casually referenced in an environmental lecture.

© Copyright 2014 by the author, Nicholas Guehlstorf.