A Magazine about the Hudson Valley’s local economy, published by Hudson Valley Current.

Hudson Riverkeeper on the Rise: Watchdogs of the waterway are relentless on site and in court

by Anne Pyburn Craig

Nine million. That’s how many people’s drinking water Riverkeeper works to defend. This member-supported watchdog organization bands together scientists, lawyers, and common citizens to protect the Hudson River and its tributaries so that the residents of the Hudson Valley and New York City may drink, cook, shower, water their gardens without worry.

Shore of the Kingston Point Beach. Photo by Joan Horton.
The organization’s predecessor—the Hudson River Fisherman’s Association— was born in 1966 out of the Hudson River’s agony. According to Riverkeeper’s website, at that time “New York City was dumping 1.5 billion gallons per day of raw sewage into the River, the paint from Tarrytown’s GM plant dyed the River a new color each week, the Indian Point power plant was killing millions of fish each day, the National Guard was filling tidal wetlands at Camp Smith, and Penn Central Railroad was discharging oil from a pipe at the Croton Rail Yard. The oil floated up the Croton on the tide, blackening the beaches and making the shad taste of diesel.”

The river was being used as a sewer, and no one in government seemed to care. One night in ’66, the waterway’s most ardent lovers gathered at the Crotonville American Legion Hall to voice their fears. “These were mostly commercial fisherman,” says Kate Hudson, the director of Riverkeeper’s NYC Watershed Program. “They lived their days on the river and knew that they were facing a dire emergency.”

The night of the meeting at Legion Hall, things got intense. For 20 miles south of Albany and 20 miles north of Manhattan, the river was already dead. People felt helpless. There was tongue-in-cheek talk of strategic sabotage.

Then a Marine vet, fly fisherman, and writer named Bob Boyle told the crowd he’d come across two forgotten laws, the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1888 and the Refuse Act of 1899, that not only forbade pollution of American waters but provided a bounty reward for whoever reported  violations. The Fisherman’s Association organized itself and started taking down polluters, collecting bounties, and helping Scenic Hudson (itself just a fledgling nonprofit) in the battle to protect Storm King Mountain against a proposal to build the world’s largest pumped-storage hydroelectric plant. This seminal fight that would establish the whole concept of requisite environmental reviews. In 1983, the HRFA hired its first official Riverkeeper.

In The Courtroom

Three major organizations advocate for the Hudson River. Pete Seeger’s Clearwater could be considered the educational arm of Hudson protection, with its sloops and festivals, while the land-use-oriented Scenic Hudson serves as a sort of forest ranger. Riverkeeper is very much the cop, or perhaps the People’s (and Water’s) Attorney.

“One of the things that gives weight to our words is the track record,” says Dan Shapley, manager of Riverkeeper’s water quality program.  “We have gone to court to defend the river before and we will again. When the law is on our side we have a stick we can bring to bear that is very powerful. We try hard to be collaborative, but we have that tool and it is well known.”

“We are very much a watchdog with a real presence; we partner with environmental law enforcement as their eyes on the river.” says Kate Hudson. “We have the incredible benefit of attorneys. Many organizations don’t have one. We have eight. (Riverkeeper’s chief prosecuting attorney is Robert F. Kennedy Jr., backed by the Pace University School of Law’s Environmental Litigation Clinic where he serves as a professor.) That is hugely important in terms of how seriously we get taken when we go to a regulator and say, ‘Here is what you need to do, and if not we’ll see you in court.’ And we partner with other organizations that don’t have attorneys.”

Over the years, Riverkeeper has won one battle after another. Hundreds of polluters have been stopped and over a dozen pieces of important environmental legislation crafted and passed. The model has proven so successful that it is the basis for the global organization Waterkeeper, which now has over 200 branches on 6 continents.

On The Water

“I’m actually out on the patrol boat right now,” Shapley says. “We’re up near Hudson. One of our scientists is rowing into the shallows to collect samples, studying invasive water chestnut.

“The core of our water quality work is doing the most extensive testing of anyone.” Riverkeeper tests at 74 locations from Troy to New York City, and another 95 spots on tributaries in collaboration with citizen scientists, specifically for pathogens from fecal matter. The testing program provides the most comprehensive answer possible to the question of where the river is safe for swimming. Even with all that testing, Shapley says, it can be a puzzle.

“People have such varying perceptions,” he says, “from ‘Oh my God! People swim in that?’ to ‘They wouldn’t let us if it weren’t safe,’ and neither is exactly accurate. No place tests clean every single time, but a lot do almost all the time. Then there are a lot of places contaminated enough that you probably wouldn’t want to go in. And even if we test a spot somewhere in midstream, it doesn’t mean the water quality is the same there as at the shore. We don’t say, ‘Swim here, not there.’ It’s a more nuanced message.” He adds, “Our ultimate goal is for the river to be safe all along its reach.”

Riverkeeper has made enormous progress. While the remaining PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) that General Electric has been forced into attempting to dredge up still make eating Hudson River fish a dicey proposition, no more can the great estuary be considered “dead” by any measure.

“How is the river? That’s another hard question to answer succinctly,” Shapley says. “If you look over the decades, we have many fewer direct discharges of toxins and a lot more waterfront parks, which is all good. At the same time, we’ve never seen more direct threats, not just from active industry, but from the remains of what’s left behind.”

As we speak, Shapley is watching a train pass on shore, a sight so common it’s taken for granted by most—but not by Riverkeeper, which is battling to protect the river and her humans from the possible consequences of any accident. The stakes are high. “We see this sudden new industry of transporting crude oil, most of it from the Bakken shale. There are 7 million gallons coming down on vast tankers and barges from Albany every week, and 40 trains a week crossing all the major tributaries. There have already been several major disasters involving these trains.

“If you look at the value of crude on a single train—100 tanker cars, 40 trains a week, 52 weeks a year—you would think there’d be plenty of money for safety mitigation, instead of leaving the burden on local communities.” Unfortunately that is not the case. Shapely explains that the USDOT has two regulatory proposals out for public comment right now and they are both “horribly flawed.” He adds, “We just put an action alert out this morning. We’re very concerned that people get educated about this. One spill from any of those methods would wipe out the progress of fifty years.”

Trials of the Tributaries
Kate Hudson has been directing Riverkeeper’s Watershed Program since 2011, a delicate balancing act that involves the DEC, the DEP, the many affected towns in the New York City watershed, and a shifting landscape of monied interests. “The Watershed Division came into existence in the 1990s when New York City was at risk of losing its FAD (Filtration Avoidance Document),” she explains. “New York is one of the only cities of its size that doesn’t need to filter its water. It would be prohibitively expensive for them to build a filtration plant. So they have been working with the EPA to avoid that. The city could not do what they needed to do without the cooperation of upstate governments, and that has been a contentious process.”

And the battle isn’t over. “There is still bad feeling. The city has been ‘solving’ turbidity by dumping dirty water into the Lower Esopus Creek. Riverkeeper has been fighting that with other local stakeholders since early 2011. It’s a long, tortured process; definitely David and Goliath, with the city as the elephant in the room. The New York State DEC should be requiring them to comply with turbidity standards but they’re not. We’re basically beating on the table asking the DEC to step up and do their jobs.”

In the battle against fracking, Hudson says, Riverkeeper helped build what has proven to be an extremely effective alliance from a patchwork quilt of caring souls. “We are not a ban group, in part because we never thought it a realistic goal, which was a big sore point for grassroots groups,” she says. “We said, ‘What are you going to do when the government moves ahead in the face of your asking for a ban? What we’re going to do is go to court. Our focus is: this cannot go forward until it is proven environmentally safe and economically beneficial to communities. We all quit quibbling about the language in public, and formed a broad coalition that submitted hundreds of pages of comments on the environmental review.

“New York is now the only state in the Marcellus shale [region] with no fracking. Their proposed regulations have never yet been finalized, creating a de facto moratorium. And we’re prepared to go to court with the National Resource Defense Council and Earth Justice if they should move toward finalizing that.”
Ordinary folks continue to be a big part of Riverkeeper’s backbone right along with the attorneys. Citizen scientists have made it possible to monitor tributary water quality, something Hudson says they lacked the staff to do before that program began. Volunteers come out to clean up litter and work tables at community events on a monthly basis. Enjoy the majesty of the Hudson? Thank Riverkeeper…and consider joining them as a voice for the river.
To learn more, visit riverkeeper.org.