They pick the big fights: Con Edison, General Electric, Exxon. Riverkeeper, founded by fishermen some 40 years ago, made its name by confronting industrial giants to protect the Hudson River. Today, the group's legislative battles continue, as do its day-to-day operations: patrolling the river for small-time polluters. But as a cleaner Hudson experiences a surge in recreation, the work only gets more complicated. Riverkeeper president Alex Matthiessen, 46, has run the organization for the past decade but is leaving to form an environmental-consulting firm. On the eve of his departure, MICHAEL ROBERTS asked him about Riverkeeper's legacy.
Outside: So is it really safe to swim in the Hudson?
MATTHIESSEN: From June through September, the Hudson is basically a 150-mile beach. You can safely swim in the river most days in most places, whereas 30 years ago it wasn't safe to swim anywhere. Riverkeeper has established a water-quality-monitoring program so that, ultimately, river lovers can use real-time data to determine whether or not it's safe to swim "today."
What have been Riverkeeper's biggest wins?
After a 30-year battle, Indian Point nuclear plant has been ordered to reduce by 97 percent their cooling-water withdrawals from the river, which slaughter an estimated one billion fish each year. General Electric has also finally started its long-overdue cleanup of PCBs from the riverbed. And Riverkeeper spearheaded the establishment of the Hudson River Estuary Preserve, which will facilitate land preservation along the Hudson for generations to come.
How can smaller conservation groups have that kind of success? You have RFK Jr. on your board.
There's no question that Bobby Kennedy is a big asset. But Riverkeeper has built a brand and reputation, apart from Bobby, as a highly effective group of advocates. We're respected by friends and foes alike for being tough but reasonable. We're about getting things done.
What's the biggest challenge facing the Hudson?
Wastewater treatment. In New York and across the country, the federal government has abandoned its role as primary investor in infrastructure. We also have these antiquated systems that combine sewage and storm water. After heavy rains, raw sewage is diverted right into our waterways.
Ick. How about a positive vision for the Hudson?
In 30 years, we'll have eliminated pollution through a self-regulating pollution tax. The valley's homes and businesses will be powered, heated, and cooled by renewable energy. American and short-nosed sturgeon, striped bass, American shad, and herring will be thriving in the river again.
How realistic is that?
It's undoubtedly ambitious— but very much within reach. What most people don't realize is that we, and not corporations, have all the power. We just don't exercise it.