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Riverkeeper’s Year On the Hudson, Part II: Cleaning and Restoring the River


Photo Courtesy Rob Friedman
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Continuing our interview with John Lipscomb, captain of Riverkeeper’s patrol boat, about the 2011 season:

For nearly 30 years, it’s been central to Riverkeeper to have a boat patrolling the Hudson, investigating polluters and enforcing clean water laws. This year, though, you saw a new level of collaboration with state and federal environmental law enforcement officials. For instance, you took federal and state officials out for patrols on the Newtown Creek in Brooklyn, and Department of Environmental Conservation officials on several patrols in the mid- and upper-Hudson, including around Albany. Why are these partnerships important?

That is a spectacular development. It’s really important because Riverkeeper is a small organization. There is a massive amount of work we could do on the river. We have a great staff, but the challenges are enormous, so having partners is huge. These are the people who have real enforcement capabilities. There is a mutual respect. Now, when we see an oil sheen on the Newtown Creek, we have a direct line to the head of DEC spill enforcement – by cell phone. That’s a huge resource for the river. Because of these relationships, we have more enforcement options to deal with the stuff that comes from our watchdogs, or from patrols and investigations. We have identified a number of other cases that we’re working on.

This summer, you helped researchers start a two-year river study, paid for by an $115,000 settlement Riverkeeper won from a case against Mirant for failing to protect fish from the cooling water intakes on its now-defunct Lovett power plant in Rockland County. Tell us about that effort:

It’s important for the public to know that when we win a case like that, we don’t keep that money. This was a case about industry harming fish, and that money will pay for a two-year study of American shad that will tell us what habitat they need in the river to successfully produce the most young. When there’s money for shad habitat restoration, we’ll know what to do with it. The polluter that hurt the fish helps the fish. That’s as it should be.

For me, it’s extremely satisfying to actually be able to help the Hudson’s fish. You spend most of your time trying to reduce contamination that hurts them, or that destroys habitat that they need, but you can’t lean over the side of the boat and help them. Shad are depleted for a number of reasons. The shad run is iconic to the Hudson. They are beautiful. They are fragile. Their migration is awe-inspiring, and it’s so wonderful to have this chance to help them.

The Hudson has made remarkable progress since 1966, when fishermen first came together to fight polluters and reclaim the river for the public. You have a unique perspective on the river by spending more time than almost any other individual on the water. When you think about the future of the Hudson, are you optimistic?

I spend so many days with this river. My relationship is very personal now. I’m aware of so many ways that the river needs help, and our resources are so small compared to the need. If you think about the challenges we face as a society, and take seriously your job as a Riverkeeper – which I do – it’s too big to handle on most days. The problems facing the river are huge, with climate change; with sewage and the release of personal care products and pharmaceuticals; with the declines of certain fish species where the causes are wide and hard to address…

You have to focus hard and close. My approach to the job is I try to do the best I can, and I try to get people fired up to do what they can. That’s all I can do. My willingness to fight for the river isn’t contingent on winning. Take Indian Point. We’ve been fighting Indian Point for years. We’re going to fight til the fight is over. If we lose, we lose. If we can figure out another way to fight, we’ll fight.
It’s like I say: If at first you don’t succeed, fight! If you get knocked down, bite their ankles.

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Continue Reading: Riverkeeper’s Year on the Hudson, Part I: Testing the Water

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