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Albany Bridge by Andrew Thompson Waterkeepers® - A History:
People Like You Watching Over America's Bays,
Coastlines, Lakes, Channels & Rivers

by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and David Whiteside
Contributed by David Whiteside, Black Warrior Riverkeeper . Special thanks to photographer Andrew Thompson, Wild Light Images

"We did not inherit this planet from our ancestors. We borrow it from our children." Old Lakota Proverb

A Handful Of Fishermen Rescue The Hudson River

The first Riverkeeper® was started on America's Hudson River by a blue-collar coalition of commercial and recreational fishermen who mobilized on the Hudson River in 1966 to reclaim their river from polluters. Some of these commercial fishermen came from families that had been fishing the Hudson River since Dutch colonial times. These traditionalists used the same fishing methods that were taught to their ancestors, the original Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam, by the Algonquin Indians. These fishermen were not environmentalists, but hard working citizens whose families' ancient way of life was being destroyed by some of the most powerful corporations in the world, especially the General Electric Company. (Guthman, 1998)

Waterkeeper logo

The Waterkeeper®
Family of Names

The Waterkeeper program names, such as "Riverkeeper®," "Lakekeeper®," "Baykeeper®," "Coastkeeper®" and others, are synonymous with effective citizen action. The effort, both to promote and to protect these names, has been organized and intentional. We have protected the names under federal trademark law. By protecting the names we can prevent their misuse. As a result, we require users to obtain a trademark license from us and meet standards of performance to ensure the Waterkeeper family of names is used in a way consistent with our mission. Using this approach enabled us to stop a land speculator on the Upper Delaware River from usurping the Riverkeeper name for the purpose of defeating water quality regulations. Our goal is to ensure that anytime you see a Waterkeeper name, you will know that the user is part of Waterkeeper Alliance and adheres to our standards and advocacy philosophy, has explicit permission to use the name and has signed a license to do so.

Starting A Program
The Waterkeeper Alliance Board of Directors approves new Waterkeeper programs. Approvals are based on compatibility with Waterkeeper purposes and goals, the likelihood of building a sustainable organization and an overall evaluation that a program is beneficial for the place in which it is proposed.

If you are interested in starting a Waterkeeper program, visit their Start a Program page.
From: Waterkeeper.org

Troubled Waters & An Angry Crowd

General Electric's toxic facilities were located hundreds of miles upriver. The PCBs, polychlorinated biphenyls, that G.E. illegally dumped into the Hudson River completely decimated the third largest commercial fishing industry in the United States. These fishermen were not put out of business by fellow competitors, they had their market destroyed by a corporation that had nothing to do with fishing, and by a chemical they had never heard of. A chemical the fishermen could not see or smell was destroying their ancient way of life. (Kennedy, 2002)

MT KATAHDIN by Andrew ThompsonIn 1964, Penn Central Railroad began discharging oil from a four-and-a-half foot pipe in New York's Croton Harmen rail yard. Oil came up the river and the tides blackened beaches. The petrochemicals made the shad taste of diesel to the point that it could not be sold at the Fulton fish market in New York City. Three hundred people came together one night in 1964 in the Parker-Bale American Legion Hall in Crotonville, New York. Photo courtesy Andrew Thompson

This night marked the beginning of the Riverkeeper movement. Almost all of the original founders, board members, and officers of Riverkeeper were former Marines, combat veterans from World War II and Korea. These people were not militant radicals, but patriots who had risked their lives for the democratic process. That night they started talking about violence because they saw something that they owned - the abundant fisheries and the purity of the Hudson's waters being robbed from them by large corporate entities of which they had no control. The Hudson River and its communities were being attacked and these former marines were not going down without a fight. To corporations this was just another body of water for them to dispose of their waste. Richie Garrett, the first president of Riverkeeper used to say about the Hudson: "It's our Riviera. It's our Monte Carlo." (Kennedy, 1997)

These heroic fishermen had been to the governmental agencies that are supposed to protect Americans from pollution and were given the cold shoulder. By March of 1966, virtually everybody in Crotonville had come to the conclusion that the government was in cahoots with the polluters, and the only way to reclaim the river was if they confronted the polluters directly. People variously suggested that they put a match to the oil slick coming out of the Penn Central pipe and blow it up or float a raft of dynamite into the intake of the Indian Point power plant, which was killing a million fish a day in 1966. Suddenly, when it looked like violence was the only road left for the fishermen, a young muckraking reporter presented a solution to their problem. (Kennedy, 1997)

Bob Boyle - The Calm In The Storm

Bob Boyle was the outdoor editor of Sports Illustrated, and a veteran of the Korean War. In 1964, Boyle wrote an article about angling on the Hudson River. In his research, Bob Boyle had come across an ancient navigational statute called the 1888 Rivers and Harbors Act, which said that it was illegal to pollute any waterway in the United States. There was also a bounty provision that said anybody who turned in the polluter got to keep half the fine.

Photo by Solon James ContusHe sent a copy of this law to the libel lawyers of Time Inc., asking if it was still good. They told him that it had not been enforced in 80 years but it was still in the books. That evening in the American Legion in Crotonville, New York, when these men were talking about violence, Boyle stood up before them and said: "We shouldn't be talking about breaking the law. We should be talking about enforcing it." With this philosophy, the Riverkeeper movement was born, eight years before the federal government passed the Clean Water Act of 1972. (Kennedy, 1997)

Eighteen months later they collected the first bounty in U.S. history under this statute. They shut down the Penn Central pipe and got to keep $2000, a huge sum in Crotonville, NY in 1968. They used the money to go after other polluters such as: Ciba Geigy, Tuck Tape Standard Brand, and many others. In 1973, they collected the highest penalty in U.S. history against a corporate polluter: $200,000 from Anaconda Wire and Cable for dumping toxins into the Hudson River at Hastings, New York. (Kennedy, 1997)

They used the money to construct a boat called The Riverkeeper, which still patrols the Hudson River today. In 1983 the organization hired John Cronin as the first full-time Riverkeeper. In 1984 Hudson Riverkeeper hired Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. as their chief prosecuting attorney. (Guthman, 2000)

Hudson Riverkeeper

In 1985, Hudson Riverkeeper started a groundbreaking environmental litigation clinic, where third year law students, by a special court order, are permitted to practice law, under the supervision of Riverkeeper's licensed attorneys. These students are given four polluters to sue at the beginning of the semester. Hudson Riverkeeper has brought over 300 successful legal actions against polluters, forcing them to spend over $2 billion on remediation of the river. (Kennedy, 2002)

Bald Eagle w/ FishThe Hudson River was a national joke in 1966. Today, the Hudson is an international model for ecosystem protection. The miraculous resurrection of the Hudson has inspired the creation of Riverkeepers on waterways across America, and across the globe. This explosive growth created the need to establish the Waterkeeper Alliance® in 1998, an umbrella organization of all the Riverkeepers, Baykeepers, Soundkeepers, Creekkeepers, Lakekeepers, etc... in the world. As of December 2002, there are more than 100 "Keepers" on Earth. Internationally there are Keepers in Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica, Belize, Columbia, England, Czech Republic, and Australia. (Kennedy, 2002) Photo courtesy Andrew Thompson: Kayakers now spot Bald Eagles on the Hudson in great numbers.

There are over 70 Keepers in the United States from the Lake Champlain Lakekeeper® in Montpelier, Vermont, to the San Diego Coastkeeper®, in California; and from the Indian Riverkeeper®, in southeastern Florida to the Puget Soundkeeper®, in Seattle, Washington. There is even a Cook Inletkeeper®, based out of Homer, Alaska. Before the completion of my senior project, there was only one Keeper program in the state of Alabama, the Mobile Baykeeper.® With the completion of my senior project, three additional Keeper programs are fighting for cleaner water for Alabama.

The Waterkeeper Alliance is one of the fastest growing environmental organizations in the United States. (Kennedy, 2002) All of this tremendous growth has made the process of approving Keeper programs much more exclusive. In order to maintain a certain quality and consistency among Keeper groups it is now harder than ever to start a Keeper program.

The Riverkeeper movement revolves around enforcing environmental laws that often get overlooked by environmental enforcement agencies. This movement preceded the passage of behemoth federal environmental laws in the 1970s. However, the Clean Water Act has become the backbone of the Waterkeeper movement since it was passed in 1972.

The First Earth Day

Giant Blue Heron by Andrew ThompsonThe 1960s were plagued with environmental injury such as: DDT poisoning, the Cuyahoga River burning for a week, and the "death" of major American bodies of water like the Hudson, Potomac, and Lake Erie. The accumulation of environmental insults drove 20 million Americans out onto the street in 1970 - the largest public demonstration in United States history. Photo courtesy Andrew Thompson

The people who participated in the first Earth Day demanded that our politicians return to the American people the ancient environmental rights that had been taken from them over the previous 80 years. The American political system responded. President Richard Nixon, a Republican, created the Environmental Protection Agency and signed 28 laws and statutes into effect that protect our water, air, endangered species, wetlands, and food. Those laws became the model for over 100 nations that had started making their own investments in the environment.

But some countries did not - invariably the ones that did not have strong democracies - democracy and the environment are intertwined. Mussels, fish, birds, and children of the future cannot participate in the political process; their interests are only represented by strong, locally based democracies where individuals who feel strongly about protecting their communities, can inject those values into the political process. There is a direct correlation between the level of tyranny in various governments and the level of environmental degradation. Right-wing tyrannies like Brazil in the 1970s or Saddam Hussein's Iraq in the 1980s and 1990s, or the left-wing tyrannies in Eastern Europe, China, and the former Soviet Union are now dealing with environmental catastrophes that appear as if they were conjured up in a horrific science-fiction novel. (Kennedy, 2002)

Economy VS Environment

In many countries and states, environmental degradation has matured into economic catastrophe. If the United States had not made that legal investment back in the 1970s, America's major rivers and therefore water supply, would be more severely degraded. An investment in the environment is not a diminishment of our nation's wealth; it's an investment in America's vital infrastructure.

However, in an increasing amount of communities across the United States, we do not see popular sovereignty, but corporate sovereignty. Large-scale private interests frequently create situations in which they pit communities against one another in a competition to allow a corporation to liquidate some communities' natural resources.

Photo by Tom Holtey: Athena - Upstate NYIn the 1960s the General Electric Company, one of the most powerful corporations in the world, invaded poverty-stricken towns in upstate New York, like Troy, Schenectady, Hudson Falls, and Fort Edward. These towns had been devastated by the collapse of the lumbar industry in the Adirondacks. (Kennedy, 1997) G.E. said to the local politicians, "We're going to bring you a brand new factory, with 1,500 new jobs and we're going to raise your tax base, and all you have to do is persuade the state of New York to write us a permit to dump some toxins in the river. If you don't, we'll move to New Jersey and you'll still get the pollution but they'll get the taxes and the jobs." These towns took the bait, and two decades later the General Electric Company closed the doors on those factories and fled the towns with fattened piggy banks. General Electric left behind a $2,000,000,000 cleanup bill, due to their releases of PCBs into the Hudson River. (Kennedy, 2002)

When General Electric dumped its PCBs into the Hudson River it was avoiding one of the costs of bringing its product to market: the cost of properly disposing of a dangerous processed chemical. It out-competed its competitors, it raised its profits, but the costs did not go away. They went into the fish, made people sick and put men out of work. They imposed costs on the American public that should, in a true free-market economy, be reflected in the price of G.E.'s product in the marketplace.

But G.E., like all polluters used political clout and chemical ingenuity to escape the discipline of the free-market and forced the public to pay its cleanup costs. Fortunately, due to lawsuits filed against General Electric by Hudson Riverkeeper, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that G.E. will have to pay the costs of removing PCBs from the Hudson River in upstate New York. Environmental laws are meant to re-impose the free-market economy in this country and stop the cheaters, forcing them to internalize their costs the same way they internalize their profits. (Bollier, 2001) Riverkeepers are patrolmen of the free-market, enforcing environmental laws that local governments are not enforcing.

In 100 percent of the situations, good environmental policy is identical to good economic policy, if we measure our economy based on how it produces jobs over the long term. If we treat the planet as if it were a business in liquidation, converting our natural resources to cash as quickly as possible, to have a few years of pollution-based prosperity, we can generate an instantaneous cash flow and the illusion of a prosperous economy.

Portland Lighthouse by Andrew ThompsonBut our children are going to pay for our joyride, with poor health, denuded air and river systems, and huge cleanup costs. Environmental injury is deficit spending. In a true free-market system you cannot make yourself wealthy without making your neighbor rich, and without enriching your community. Polluters make themselves rich by making everybody else poor. (Kennedy, 2002) Photo courtesy Andrew Thompson

America's system of rivers and land are so much more than a commodity, they are our communities. Riverkeepers do not fight to preserve our rivers for the sake of the Triangular kidneyshell or Watercress darter, but because these bodies of water will have more value to humanity if they are purer and support a diverse system of aquatic life, rather than being a poison that threatens our communities.

As environmental advocates, Riverkeepers elbow their way into the political process and courtrooms with enormous polluting institutions. Polluters that are stealing the vital resources that belong to all of America's citizens: the fresh air our children need to breathe, the fresh water that we need to drink, our abundant fisheries, and our wandering animals - those public trust assets that belong to each and every American.

Riverkeepers stand up and say: "we are emissaries for the future and we demand an accounting. We want to know what you're doing with the things that do not belong to you, with things that belong to the children of the future. Like the old Lakota proverb: "We did not inherit this planet from our ancestors. We borrow it from our children." Riverkeepers aggressively fight for purer rivers with the belief that cleaner water yields stronger communities. Riverkeepers are advocates for the public's future. (Kennedy, 2002)

Resources:

RiverkeepersThe Riverkeepers by John Cronin & Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
Out of print but sometimes available used through Amazon.com. In the 1960s the Hudson River, under threat from polluters and energy concerns but beloved by its shoreline residents and local fishermen, became one of the United States' first major environmental battlegrounds. Link supports TopKayaker.net

Waterkeeper Alliance - A grassroots advocacy organization with 137 local Waterkeeper programs & growing. We are dedicated to preserving and protecting YOUR WATER from polluters. Join Waterkeeper Alliance! FIND WATERKEEPER PROGRAMS IN YOUR AREA

TopKayaker.Net's Directory of Kayak Clubs & Water Quality Organizations
U.S. State by State as well as Global listings.

Annual Great Hudson River Paddle Celebrates the Hudson River Greenway Water Trail, the improvement of public access to the Hudson River, and the diversity and heritage of the riverside communities of the Hudson River Valley.

The Hudson River Valley Greenway Through voluntary participation in the Greenway community planning program, communities in thirteen counties in the Hudson River Valley can receive technical assistance and funding for local land use planning projects which support the goals of the Greenway program.

The Hudson River Valley Heritage Area. Embracing four million acres, the Hudson River Valley National Heritage Area (HRVNHA) follows the flow of the Hudson River as this great arm of the sea carves a 154-mile path through highlands, rolling countryside and scenic shoreline from just north of Manhattan to the State Capital Region.


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