The Hudson is home to one of the most sophisticated and aggressive environmental communities to protect any resource in the world. Since the early 1960s, a vigilant band of environmental groups, including NRDC, Clearwater, Scenic Hudson, and Riverkeeper, have fought to maintain the River’s biological and aesthetic integrity.
In 1966, Riverkeeper was launched as the Hudson River Fishermen’s Association, a blue-collar coalition of commercial and recreational fishermen, whose first public meeting was at the American Legion Hall in Crotonville, New York. Members of this newly formed organization, many of them former Marines, labored as factory workers, carpenters, lathers or commercial fishermen. Few of these people expected to see Yellowstone or Yosemite or vacation in the Rockies. The Hudson was their environment, their workplace, their property, their park – the centerpiece of their Port Ewen communities. “Our Riviera, our Monte Carlo,” said Ritchie Garrett, the group’s newly elected president. A standing room crowd, hung from the rafters and pressed against the rifle racks, whooped and hollered wildly when Garrett, an ex-Marine and professional grave digger, promised his new followers, “I’ll be the last to let you down.”
When Garrett finished, men and women rose to take the microphone and extol the River. Rivermen from Verplanck and Claverack, some descended from generations of commercial fishermen, spoke of the great runs of striped bass, blue fish, and shad; of giant sturgeon bursting with caviar; of herring and alewives so numerous they turned the tributaries to quicksilver; the succulent blue crab and lucrative eel; or the gefilte fish fishery that peaked during Jewish holidays. Recreational fishermen boasted of the trout, black bass and perch they caught on plugs, the youngsters who would net shrimp, goldfish or herring for bait in the marsh at the mouth of the Croton, and how most of Crotonville congregated on its beaches in the summer months for beer and barbecues.
But each of them fretted about what was happening to the River – the polluters were effectively stealing it from the public. 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 dying. Twenty-mile stretches south of Albany and north of New York City were already dead and the Hudson had become the butt of Tonight Show quips. Worst of all, government seemed to be in cahoots with the polluters. The discussion began to turn desperate. Somebody suggested floating a raft of dynamite beneath the Con Edison piers where it would be sucked into the intake. Someone else said Penn Central’s pipe could be plugged with a mattress or ignited with a match.
Then another ex-Marine rose to speak. Bob Boyle was an ornery fly fisherman and outdoor writer for Sports Illustrated. In the course of researching an article about angling in the River two years earlier, he’d stumbled across two little known laws: the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1888 and the Refuse Act of 1899. These statutes forbade pollution of American waters and provided a bounty reward for whoever reported the violation!
After listening to Boyle with escalating excitement, the American Legion crowd agreed to organize themselves to track down and prosecute the Hudson’s polluters one at a time until they were all eliminated. They were as good as their word. Two years later they shut down the Penn Central Pipe and collected $2,000, the first bounty ever awarded under the 19th-century statute. They were soon collecting even larger bounties against Standard Brands, Ciba-Geigy, American Cynamid, Westchester County, Anaconda Wire and Copper and many others. The Fishermen also had joined with Scenic Hudson in a lawsuit to stop Con Edison’s proposal to build a hydroelectric facility on Storm King Mountain. It was, in large part, the discovery of a striped bass spawning ground near the project site that ultimately derailed the deal.
The Fishermen used winnings from these cases to build and launch a Riverkeeper boat, which today patrols the Hudson searching out environmental lawbreakers and bringing them to justice. In 1983, they hired their first full-time Riverkeeper, activist and former commercial fisherman John Cronin. One year later, I joined Riverkeeper as its Chief Prosecuting Attorney.
Since those early days, Riverkeeper has brought hundreds of polluters to justice and forced them to spend hundreds of millions of dollars remediating the Hudson. The Hudson, condemned as an “open sewer” in the 1960s, is today one of the richest water bodies on earth. The River’s miraculous recovery has inspired the creation of “waterkeepers” on more than 150 waterways across the globe.
-Excerpted from introduction to "Looking Back, Forging Ahead", Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and Alex Matthiessen for the spring 2006 issue of the Riverkeeper newsletter.
-Photos courtesy Riverkeeper, Basil Seggos and Joseph Squillante
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