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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Hudson Riverkeepers

Air Date: Week of

In the U. S., more than twenty waterways, from the Delaware River to Puget Sound have their own corps of volunteers called "Riverkeepers." They say their mission is to preserve and to protect these bodies of water for all people and wildlife . Richard Schiffman reports on one group on the Hudson River which has revived this ancient tradition of stewardship.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. In Merry Old England, kings used to appoint people to maintain their royal fishing grounds. They were called “riverkeepers.” Today in the United States, more than 20 waterways from the Delaware River to Puget Sound have their own keepers. They say their mission is not to preserve these bodies of water for a privileged elite, but to protect them for all the people and wildlife. Richard Schiffman reports on one group on the Hudson River, which has revived this ancient tradition of stewardship.

(Music with banjos)

SCHIFFMAN: Hundreds gather to support the watchdog environmental group Riverkeeper. From this high bluff across the river from the US Military Academy at West Point, it's easy to see why the Hudson has attracted such a devoted following. Below, a reed brown marsh patrolled by a solitary red- tailed hawk. Further on, the glistening river narrows as it passes the rounded peaks of the Hudson Highlands, rising sheer from its banks.

(Sheep bleat as music continues)

BOYLE: It's very easy to fall in love with a river. I mean, a river symbolizes human life. It has a beginning, it has a middle, and it has an end in the oceans. Rivers are very compelling. No question about it. But what we've done to rivers, we've got to turn around and do better by them. And do better by ourselves in doing better by the rivers.

(Ambient conversation, many people out in the open)

SCHIFFMAN: Robert Boyle's love affair with the Hudson began when he was a boy growing up along its banks. He left the area to pursue journalism. When he returned to the Hudson in the early sixties, he was shocked to see what he called “an open sewer”, unfit for swimming or fishing.

BOYLE: At the time the Hudson River was the butt of jokes on late night television. The laws were there, they simply weren't being enforced, and that's what we did.

SCHIFFMAN: Robert Boyle had a unique idea. He trained a group of commercial fishermen to be the eyes and ears of the Hudson: the Hudson River Fisherman's Association, created to track down polluters and bring them to justice.

BOYLE: They had to be organized and they had to be informed about what laws were being violated. And then they said, “Hey, look at that plant over there, do you know what that SOB is doing? Every day when I go out there he's putting this stuff out, and that's against the law. Let's go after him." So that's the way it was very grass roots. Very grass roots.

SCHIFFMAN: The Hudson River Fisherman's Association evolved into The Riverkeeper, one of the region's largest and most aggressive environmental groups. John Cronin is the current Riverkeeper. The former Hudson River fisherman works with his small staff in a converted 19th century farm house near Garrison, New York.

(Voices, a phone rings)

CRONIN: The yellow pins represent power plants. The blue pins represent industries. And the red pins represent sewage treatment plants.

SCHIFFMAN: Pin-studded maps mounted on plywood give the Riverkeeper office the appearance of a war room.

CRONIN: What it's going to do in an ecosystem like the Hudson River, if anything, is not going to be some one large polluter. It's going to be a collection of small polluters. You know, the Hudson River, if it ever dies, and it's true of most water bodies in the country, will die the death of a thousand cuts. So this helps us focus on where those concentrations of small polluters are, where they might be having a collective impact on some important habitat.

(A motor starts up)

CRONIN: That's a big old Cummins diesel.

SCHIFFMAN: To help monitor the small and not so small offenders, John Cronin cruises the Hudson several times a week. We head downstream, toward the telltale dome of a nuclear reactor.

(Loud motor)

CRONIN: This is the Indian Point Nuclear Plant right here. It's a power plant that uses Hudson River water for cooling, and one of the problems with power plants that use open water for cooling is that they kill millions and millions of fish. And they kill them mechanically. They actually suck the fish into the plants and kill them, and that's happening here. Here at the Indian Point plan they kill easily tens of millions of fish a year, at all different life stages from eggs to larvae to juvenile fish, even some large fish.

(The motor quiets)

SCHIFFMAN: The boat idles before the plant's massive intake pipes, which suck in up to a million gallons of river water a minute. The pipes are fitted with fish saving equipment, installed after Riverkeepers sued the federal Environmental Protection Agency to create nationwide standards for power plant intakes. But young fish pass through the screens and die.

SPAHL: What our studies tell us is that the fish population within the river is very healthy.

SCHIFFMAN: Mike Spahl is the spokesperson for Consolidated Edison, the company that runs Indian Point. He concedes that the Indian Point plant destroys some young striped bass. But he says that this species is currently thriving in the Hudson.

SPAHL: Recently, we worked with the environmental and natural resources groups to close down a striped bass hatchery because there were so many Hudson striped bass in the river that it was not necessary to produce them any more at a hatchery.

SCHIFFMAN: Mike Spahl says he respects the Riverkeeper organization, which has been negotiating with Con Ed over a range of issues for the past 17 years. But other industry sources say off the record that the media-savvy Riverkeeper is more interested in grabbing headlines than in solving difficult environmental problems. John Cronin answers that it's fish and pollution and not publicity that interests him. He's especially troubled, he says, by a decades-old discharge of the chemicals PCB from two General Electric plants north of Albany. Contaminated sediments continue to pollute the Hudson, forcing New York State to ban most fishing on the river. The irony, John Cronin says, is that while stocks of many species are actually increasing, the PCB problem has pushed the once thriving fishing industry on the Hudson to the verge of extinction.

(Boat motor runs)

CRONIN: When I was a commercial fisherman on the river back in the late 70s, there were still probably about 150 fishermen left. This season in 1997 shed season, there's probably only 25 fishermen left. It's an honorable industry and it shouldn't be allowed to die, and there's no good reason for it to die. This is not part of economic evolution that it's dying. It's dying because of environmental abuse.

(At a meeting) Stacy, where do we stand with the Yonkers sewage treatment plant?

WEISENFELD: Right now we're looking at this plant to see what they're discharging, if it's in compliance with their permit. And we're getting ready to send out a notice of intent to sue or our “lois” (letter of intent to sue) letter at this point. And...

SCHIFFMAN: Stacy Weisenfeld is a student at Pace University in White Plains, New York. She's a member of Riverkeeper's Environmental Law Clinic.

WEISENFELD: And what the clinic does here is say look, we're prepared to go to trial. We've got all these students working around the clock on your case, and we're going to get you. So why don't you come to the table and we'll get an environmental mitigation program set up. We'll get environmental benefit funds set up. And instead of wasting the efforts and the time and the money and the expense on a trial, we'll channel that into fixing the pollution, to preventing the problem.

SCHIFFMAN: And if persuasion doesn't work, the students litigate. Attorney Robert Kennedy, Jr., oversees their work.

KENNEDY: We have 10 students who are allowed to practice law under our supervision. We give them each 2 or 3 polluters to sue at the beginning of the semester. They go into court and argue their cases and they've been extraordinary successful. We've brought over 150 polluters to justice since we opened our doors at the clinic. We have forced polluters to spend somewhere around half a billion dollars on remediation of the Hudson.

(A train clanks, horns blow)

SCHIFFMAN: Not only polluters draw the lawyers' attention. Both banks of the Hudson are owned by railroads, which severely restrict public access to the river. Student lawyer David Steimber has been negotiating with the railroads.

STEIMBER: We're now working with Metro North to actually locate where on the river we're going to build safe crossings so that people can continue to use the traditional fishing spots that their families have used for generations.

SCHIFFMAN: Pace Law Clinic has inspired similar programs as far afield as the Chattahoochie River in Georgia, and on the Santa Monica and San Diego bays in Southern California. Robert Kennedy.

KENNEDY: This community was blessed since the early sixties with an extremely vigorous, aggressive, sophisticated environmental movement that was willing to go to war to save this river. That was willing to show up at the planning board meetings and the permit hearings and the zoning boards of appeal, and ultimately to go to court when they had to, to find the attorneys, and defend the river.

SCHIFFMAN: Robert Kennedy adds that the river now flows cleaner than it has in decades. Robert Boyle agrees, and he claims that the Hudson is today the healthiest river system on the Atlantic seaboard.

BOYLE: This is the only major estuary on the East Coast of the United States that still retains viable populations of all of its original fish species. We have become sort of the Noah's Ark for estuarine river systems elsewhere in this country that want to restore their missing fish species, for example, striped bass that are now in the Kennebeck River are of Hudson River origin. Shad restoration going on in the Susquehana River in Pennsylvania. Shad are from the Hudson River.

SCHIFFMAN: But Robert Boyle cautions against taking the Hudson's recovery for granted. There are still many threats to the water quality of the river, he says, and only vigilance will keep it clean. Robert Boyle is looking forward to the day, he says, when every significant river bay and lake in America will have its own watchdog organization to serve as its eyes and ears and champion. For Living on Earth, I'm Richard Schiffman.



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