|Motto||NY's clean water advocate|
|Formation||1966 (Hudson River Fishermen's Association)|
|Headquarters||Ossining, New York|
Riverkeeper is a non-profit environmental organization dedicated to the protection of the Hudson River and its tributaries, as well as the watersheds that provide New York City with its drinking water. It started out as the Hudson River Fisherman's Association (HRFA) in 1966, a citizen-led environmental enforcement organization founded by a group of recreational and commercial fisherman. In 1983, HRFA hired John Cronin, the first full-time Hudson Riverkeeper, to patrol the river, protect it from polluters, and enforce environmental laws. In 1986, the group officially changed its name to Riverkeeper, making it the first "keeper" group to be founded. Their movement motivated the formation of "keeper" groups across the world, protecting rivers, bays, lakes, and coastal waterways. In 1999, the Waterkeeper Alliance, was created as an umbrella organization to unite and support "keeper" organizations. Two decades later, in December 2019, the network had grown to 350 members in 46 countries, with half the membership outside the U.S.; the alliance had added 200 groups in the last five years.
Riverkeeper's mission is "to protect the environmental, recreational and commercial integrity of the Hudson River and its tributaries, and safeguard the drinking water of nine million New York City and Hudson Valley residents". It uses litigation, science, patrolling, citizen engagement, and legislation to accomplish its goals. Paul Gallay serves as the Riverkeeper and president of the organization.
The Hudson Valley has long been considered the birthplace of the modern American environmental movement. In the 1960s a small group of scientists, fishermen and concerned citizens led by Robert H. Boyle, author of The Hudson River, A Natural and Unnatural History and a senior writer at Sports Illustrated, were determined to reverse the decline of the then-polluted Hudson River by confronting the polluters through advocacy and citizen law enforcement.
Riverkeeper grew out of "a blue-collar coalition of commercial and recreational fishermen" who organized to reclaim the Hudson River from polluters. While Riverkeeper aids national and international networks guard local waterways, their grassroots actions are unique. Where many local efforts use protests and high-risk defiance of authority, Riverkeeper seeks citizen empowerment in environmental law. After filing claims with government agencies such as the Army Corps of Engineers, this mobilized body politic saw how business interests clouded government actions. They believe ordinary people should be able to defend public resources from abuse and it was by such actions to protect communal watershed quality that legal standing was given to United States' citizens in environmental disputes.
Prior to Riverkeeper's predecessor organization, the Hudson River Fishermen's Association (HRFA), a few activists strove to mobilize the Hudson Valley politic. Of note was Robert H. Boyle, a fisherman and a sportswriter for Sports Illustrated. Boyle moved to the area in the 1960s and, upon fishing the Hudson and its tributaries, grew fond of the region. He became familiar with residents that he found knew most about the river, the fishermen. Soon after, he began to research the river and published articles rebuking wild land conservation as ignorant of community environmental issues.
Boyle's support was crucial to the litigation between local environmentalists, organized under the Scenic Hudson Preservation Conference (Scenic Hudson), and Consolidated Edison (Con Ed), New York's chief electric utility in the case Scenic Hudson Preservation Conference v. Federal Power Commission. The case involved Con Ed's proposal to build a hydropower facility on Storm King Mountain in the Hudson Highlands. Scenic Hudson, joined by the Nature Conservancy, filed a complaint against the plant, but the Federal Power Commission (FPC) approved it, ignoring likely ecological harm. Boyle studied this case and found that a New York Fish and Game Journal article identified this part of the Hudson as a key spawning ground for striped bass. He informed Scenic Hudson of this result. The FPC rejected this data due to testimony of a former New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) biologist.
Boyle met with the article's authors and found not only was this biologist aware of the study, he hired them to perform it. Boyle then tried to link other activities to striped bass populations, mainly Con Ed's Indian Point nuclear power plant. Local fishermen long asserted that thousands of fish were killed by the plant's intake pipes and Dominick Pirone of the Long Island League of Salt Water Sportsmen alleged he was shown photos of a dead fish pile twelve feet high. Boyle later found that DEC gathered this proof and hid it, claiming the plant killed no fish. Infuriated, he tried to tie fish kills to the future Storm King plant. With testimony from a fisheries biologist of the United States Marine Gamefish Laboratory, Boyle undermined the DEC's faulty data, proving the site as critical bass spawning habitat.
In spite of this victory, local citizens continued to battle the FPC. Yet by 1965, due in part to Boyle's articles relating the case to local fishery impacts and by unearthing the fish kill photos the DEC had stifled, the Hudson Valley politic was aroused. Scenic Hudson also began receiving donations from thousands of people from forty-eight states.
Storm King Doctrine
In December 1965, the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals reversed FPC's dismissal of the petitions against the plant, "holding that injury to aesthetic or recreational values was sufficient to provide an aggrieved party with constitutional "standing"". This result, known as the Storm King Doctrine, was the first time environmentalists were given standing to object to scenic or recreational injury without showing tangible economic harm. Though this fight lasted for fifteen more years, community concerns for environmental quality now held weight in future litigation. Thus, despite Con Ed and FPC efforts to evade additional hearings and their later release of faulty impact assessments, a new group, the HRFA, swayed the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) to consider fish kills in relicensing Con Ed's current plant at Indian Point. The HRFA, founded by Boyle, united recreational and commercial fishermen who valued the Hudson River as public property and saw its safety as linked to the protection of democratic ideals. They cared for the valley because the river supported their livelihoods and offered them a sense of place. It was "our Monte Carlo, our Riviera" as one fisherman stated.
The inclusion of fish kills at Indian Point caused the Second Circuit Court of Appeals to order the FPC to revive the fish mortality issue at Storm King. With the environmentalists' new constitutional standing, Con Ed envisioned costly litigation ahead. In 1980, Con Ed sought a settlement accord, resulting in the Hudson River Peace Treaty. This agreement cancelled the hydropower plant, mandated the land become a park and forced Con Ed to donate $12 million to endow a Hudson River Foundation to study the river. Con Ed was spared costs of constructing infrastructure at Indian Point to solve the fish intake problem, but had to research alternative solutions to reduce fish kills. The Storm King Doctrine set precedents for environmental law including citizens' claims to bring an environmental dispute before a court. This right was included in the National Environmental Policy Act and expanded citizen participation in the environmental movement.
Successful closure of Indian Point plant is expected to generate a $15m fund for "community and environmental project", half of which Riverkeeper believes it should receive, subject to a dispute with local community who lost significant source of income with closure of the plant.
Citizen environmental enforcement
While empowerment swept across the region, forgotten legislation was about to reshape citizen efforts by placing them on the offensive. The Refuse Act of 1899 set up fines from $500 to $2,500 for pollutant discharges to the navigable waters of the United States. Moreover, half the fine was afforded to whoever aided in alerting the public of the violation and allowed citizens to enforce its provisions if government failed to do so. This Act caused a surge in public interest over water pollution in the early 1970s, stirring many citizens to enforce civil (and potentially criminal) violations of a federal statute, and placing pressure on the national government to create effective water protection policy.
The HRFA was one of the first groups to rediscover this Act and successfully apply it. Once Boyle familiarized himself with the Refuse Act, he noted its value to the community at once. When the HRFA held their first public meeting, drawing a standing-room only gathering of Hudson Valley masons, commercial fishermen, carpenters and other local laborers at an American Legion Hall, Boyle found an audience to hear his new tactics for citizen empowerment. Of note was the presence of Congressman Richard Ottinger, who was so moved by the turnout of working-class environmentalists who sought redress for the social and environmental inequities in their towns that he cancelled his agenda to discuss these problems. Ottinger was key to the political support structure of HRFA's initial growth. He and others at this meeting heard from fishermen plagued by buyer disdain for Hudson River fish, as well as local factory and construction workers who reported personal observations of pollutant discharges by their employers.
Their first target was Penn Central Railroad, which for years released petroleum products into the Croton River, a tributary of the Hudson. HRFA notified the Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Attorney by written letters and phone calls to enforce the Refuse Act, but were ignored. In 1968, HRFA and Congressman Ottinger sued Penn Central, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Secretary of the Army. This caught the U.S. Attorney's interest, causing them to join the suit against Penn Central. The railroad lost the suit and provided the first bounty afforded to a private organization from a polluter since the Act's enactment. HRFA, now emboldened, distributed thousands of copies of the Refuse Act on "Bag a Polluter" postcards for citizens to fill in polluters' names and to send back to the HRFA. This effectively found many violators liable for their actions.
The HRFA was growing and many members now spread its message to communities and public officials. Richie Garrett, HRFA's president, was a local grave-digger from Ossining, NY who had grown up along the Croton River, fishing and living by means of this waterbody. By his involvement in the HRFA, he grew as an activist by writing letters and presenting slide shows of fish kills and pollution at venues from garden club meetings to Knights of Columbus halls. He became so well known that he testified in front of the U.S. House of Representative's Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation over Governor Rockefeller's idea for a Hudson River expressway, describing his efforts not as radical, but as American in disposition. Garrett urged his audiences to forgo trying to resolve all the issues facing Earth, but to find a part of the world meaningful to them, and protect it. He found such an advocate in Fred Danback in one of HRFA's largest cases yet.
Danback worked as a janitor for Anaconda Wire and Cable Company at Hastings-on-Hudson, NY. On his first day of employment, he discovered that the company released oils and solvents through floor drains that led directly into the river. Danback had grown up along the waterfront and had often heard complaints that Hudson shad tasted of oil. He now had proof of such pollution. After an unresponsive complaint to Anaconda, he contacted the United States Coast Guard to intervene. Yet, one afternoon he found company representatives dining with Coast Guard officials; appearing quite amicable. It was then Danback knew he could not rely on government and had to find other ways to address the issue. In 1969, Danback quit Anaconda and joined the HRFA. He brought evidence and analysis before the U.S. Attorney's office and badgered the agency until 1971, when they charged Anaconda with one hundred counts of violating the Refuse Act.
Growth of the organization
These victories raised citizen empowerment and provided new funding to expand HRFA influence along the Hudson. Robert Boyle had called for a "Riverkeeper" in a book, arguing for someone "on the river the length of the year, nailing polluters on the spot...giving a sense of time, place and purpose to people who live in or visit the valley". Thus, he was inspired in meeting John Cronin, an area local who had worked aboard the Clearwater, a replica of the Hudson River sloop that fostered education and the restoration of the Hudson. Cronin worked in the Clearwater Pipewatch project, inspecting companies for Clean Water Act (CWA) violations. His first assignment entailed an adhesive tape manufacturing company. As a result, the company was convicted of twelve violations of the 1972 CWA. Initially uninspired by citizen participation in environmental fields, Cronin was transformed by this outcome. "I wasn't a scientist. I wasn't a lawyer. As just an average, everyday citizen, I was able to get a polluter charged". After his legal forays, Cronin became a lobbyist at the Center for the Hudson River Valley and then worked as a political aide; educating himself on government structure. Still, he did not forget the Hudson and after a couple years returned to the river to become a commercial fisherman. Cronin boated much of the Hudson and fostered an admiration for the river from his experiences with local fishermen. After facing multiple struggles as a fisherman, he found love in the river's beauty and bounty, but also hardship in its daily trials. His passion developed beyond simple environmentalism to encompass a deeper respect for a mutual coexistence between himself and the river.
Boyle found his Riverkeeper in John Cronin and Cronin found his calling in this new organization. Only after Cronin's first acts as Riverkeeper did it grow in popularity. Upon taking on his role as Riverkeeper in 1983, Cronin was tipped off by a state trooper that oil tankers were rinsing contents into the Hudson. He quickly engaged the issue and often anchored near the advised area to listen to the captains' discussions over the radio at night. When he learned ships were flushing out jet fuel residue and filling up with river water to take to an Exxon refinery, Cronin started collecting water samples. Over two years, he recorded one hundred seventy-seven Exxon tankers discharge into the river and take up clean water. Cronin's proof was so thorough that Exxon settled, paying $1.5 million to New York State for a private river management fund and $500,000 to HRFA; half of which went to Riverkeeper and the other half towards environmental projects on the Hudson. This case afforded Riverkeeper local and national regard. In 1986, HRFA joined Riverkeeper as one group to protect the river, to retract it from corporate abuse and to return it to public use. Cronin saw Riverkeeper's new mission as not just to hunt polluters, but to prove itself to the community and empower those who felt the social disruption of the ecological misuse of the Hudson.
In essence, Riverkeeper is an environmental "neighborhood watch" group maintained by concerned citizens. Its constituents are not public officials and are not swayed by politics, but include members who defend the public use and restrict the private alienation of the river's benefits. Thus, Riverkeeper has engaged environmental justice issues, such as community park access. For example, around 1990, the City of New York Parks Commissioner restricted greenspace access by banning bus and subway transit, frequented modes of transport for African Americans, from reaching certain parks. Riverkeeper sued Westchester County and forced it to reopen six county parks that were closed to meet the budget, but due to their proximity to a railway, were mainly used by minority communities. The County had not closed any golf courses used by affluent residents, even though they were greater strains on County funds than parks that offered some minorities their only access to the river. This was not the only occasion where land use policies threatened the health of the Hudson River watershed as a public resource. In 1990, a team of Riverkeeper attorneys took on developers and lackluster enforcement agencies to protect the reservoirs and streams that constitute the water supply for nine million New York City and Westchester County residents. Riverkeeper also united with a chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples (NAACP), in Ossining. During the 1960s, this oldest stable African American residential community in the Hudson Valley was rezoned industrial and has suffered social decline ever since. In 1991, Riverkeeper and the Ossining NAACP effectively sued the Ossining Planning Board to repeal an expansion of a construction debris processing plant that would have worsened diesel fumes and house vibrations at adjacent households.
The Riverkeeper movement has redefined grassroots forces by democratizing resources for communities and has afforded a constant medium of participation for neighborhoods whose episodic battles can exhaust their passion. Local waterways are protected by citizen-led efforts to confront pollution in the courts, the media, and the political system with the aid of a network of local knowledge to prevent the failure of democratic processes by politically endowed industries. This movement restored communal ownership and control to the lives of its participants, many of which were transformed by efforts to embrace democratic rights to clean water and the redress of regulatory failures. Diana Leicht, a quiet mother from Newburgh, N.Y. turned irate when her municipal water supply became so polluted that it sickened her child. She contacted Riverkeeper, which informed her of her legal rights to clean water. They discovered her timidity had grown from a desire to be a good citizen and not for fear of conflict. With the aid of Riverkeeper, she organized sixty mothers to learn their rights under legislation such as the CWA and the Safe Drinking Water Act. They gained media interest, contacted state agencies directly and at hearings, sued the town of Newburgh, won their claims and forced the payment of damages. By empowering citizens to embrace their democratic rights, Riverkeeper helped stir the passion of two hundred residents to confront the town board at a local meeting resulting in the board's public statement to become more alert to local needs.
The American environmental movement spans several centuries and has been affected by past beliefs and modern ideologies. While first focused on wild lands outside of civilization, this movement now includes urban centers, production activities, and human health. Still, further cooperation is needed to unite mainstream and community-based concerns. Mainstream groups have been critiqued as elitist and overly Caucasian, and tend to focus on the current system of governance instead of alternative means to embrace issues of race, gender, class and social health. These organizations have become fixated on policy-making processes, forcing them to allow concessions on issues vital to alternative groups to create a cordial dialogue with industry and government.
Grassroots activism has begun to fill the void left by the institutionalization of the environmental movement. These groups foster mediums for environmental change, rely on voluntary action and stress citizen empowerment as well as pollution prevention instead of only technical controls. Their origins are distinct from mainstream groups and often appear to be descendent from earlier urban and industrial movements linked to the mobilization of concerned citizens, the growth of networks and a meaningful sense of place.
The public trust doctrine separates private ownership from resources held in common by the public. This legal right, recognized in New York's Constitution, holds that the people own the Hudson River and all citizens have a right to its use, but none can abuse this privilege to degrade its use by others. This democratic value was offset during the Industrial Revolution when courts and legislatures overlooked the public trust and gave more power to industry. A similar erosion of another common law, nuisance law, occurred in the same era. Nuisance law bars private land uses that injure the community or disrupt the rights of others to enjoy their property. In response, millions of Americans demanded greater protection for environmental and community health. As such, these rights were rewritten with greater emphasis in our federal statutory system. They declare no one has the right to pollute public resources and everyone has the right to a clean environment. Only by democratic representation has industry been given permits to pollute so long as the activity benefits society and causes no harm. This created the field of risk assessment and questions what society risks in allocating our common rights to industry.
The origins and propagation of the Riverkeeper movement involve citizen ownership and empowerment. Democracies can be assessed by how fairly they distribute natural wealth and whether the bodies politic have equal access to it. When government fails to secure these goals, our legal structure offers ways to reassert our claims as citizens. Right-to-know laws such as the Freedom of Information Act afford citizens the power to demand knowledge of government and corporate activity in their communities. If these acts violate environmental laws, they can prosecute polluters in the place of the U.S. Attorney General under citizen-suit provisions that are part of every major federal environmental statute. These laws give the public democratic rights to regain ownership over their neighborhoods.
Riverkeeper's success stirred other citizens to defend their own waterways. Such groups work across the nation and emulate Riverkeeper's tactics of empowerment by the enforcement of democratic rights and ecological quality. Riverkeeper was joined by Pace University Law School in its struggles, providing it and the Hudson Valley legal resources to combat corporate power. Many law schools have forged similar alliances; becoming arsenals for citizen enforcement suits for Keeper organizations. This has educated communities, giving them a means to exercise their rights, and has taught new generations of law students the value of community-based activism in environmental law. Not long after these new groups began to take shape, Riverkeeper was offered funding to become a national organization with local chapters around the nation. Riverkeeper declined the offer since it believed in grassroots action as a means to empower the disenfranchised from the bottom-up, instead of by national forces. In 1992, the current set of Keeper programs created the National Alliance of River, Sound and Baykeepers, led by Riverkeeper. This organization became "a national community of Keepers" where members network, share resources, and license new groups as accredited Keeper programs.
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In 2000, eight of the 22 members of Riverkeeper's board resigned after Kennedy insisted on rehiring William Wegner, a scientist whom the organization's then-president, Boyle, had fired as soon as he had learned Wegner had been hired six months earlier. In 1995, Wegner had been convicted of smuggling rare bird eggs from Australia and had also pled guilty to tax evasion. Boyle and the board members who resigned believed it was not right for an environmental organization to hire someone convicted of environmental crimes, especially since critics would not hesitate to publicize that fact to gain a publicity advantage. Treasurer John Fry, who also resigned, felt it would hurt the organization's fundraising. Boyle was also further displeased that Kennedy had made an employment decision, since that was solely his responsibility within the organization.
Kennedy, who had hired Wegner to work for him personally after Boyle had fired him, said Wegner had done "terrific work" for Riverkeeper and no one, even those who had resigned over the hiring, disputed that. "We all make mistakes in our lives," he told The New York Times. "Where would any of us be if we didn't get a second chance?" As of 2017 Wegner remains employed by Riverkeeper.
Recent activities and cases
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Today, these organizations have built a global network, the Waterkeeper Alliance, and include more than one hundred eighty Keepers, modeled after and supported by Riverkeeper. Despite the national and global transformation of the Keeper movement, Riverkeeper's mission remains local. Their efforts still focus on reducing fish kills and water pollution, maintaining the quality of New York City's drinking water, and increasing public access and appreciation for the Hudson River. At any given time, Riverkeeper is involved in many actions to protect the integrity of the river, its tributaries, the Croton watershed, or other waters that affect New York City's water supply. These actions take the form of litigation; investigations; environmental review of development projects; citizen empowerment projects; regulatory review and comment; and local, state, and federal policy issues.
Riverkeeper maintains a 36-foot (11-m) wooden patrol and research vessel, the R. Ian Fletcher, operated by Boat Captain, John Lipscomb. Riverkeeper's full-time presence on the river enables it to respond to and investigate new reports of illegal discharges, facilitate scientific research on the Hudson, and provide access to the river to its members, public officials, students and the media.
Keeper programs not only defend natural lands for their own sake, but preserve the quality of these environments for the cultural and social enrichment of those that call these locales home, and importantly, for those who will do so in the future. Riverkeeper reveals the value of not only engaging in environmental conflicts over broad national or international issues, but also in those occurring in our own backyards. By reasserting public ownership of common resources and that any harm incurred to them is an act of thievery against every community member; Riverkeeper protects Hudson Valley communities, its environment and the democratic rights of its citizens. Through outreach as well as active citizen enforcement of legal standards, Riverkeeper has empowered individuals to oppose corporate control. These citizens have retaken control of their lives by reestablishing the core principles of democratic environmental governance in their communities.
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