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Alex Matthiessen is the President of Riverkeeper, a New York State-based clean water advocacy organization widely considered to be among the most successful non-profits of its kind. Prior to his[…]

The inside story of one of the most successful environmental restoration projects in U.S. history.

Question: How did Riverkeeper clean up the Hudson?

Alex Matthiessen: Well the Hudson is actually a terrific success story, it’s hailed internationally as a model of waterway restoration because of Riverkeepers work on the Hudson River and helping to restore the river which we’ve been largely successful at over the last 40 years along and in coalition with many other environmental groups and concerned citizens and so on. This has become as I said a model for waterway restoration and Riverkeeper has become a model for water, clean water advocacy. Riverkeeper is the first water keeper if you will, we were started in 1966, there are now 175 other Water Keepers working locally to protect their sounds and their bays and their coastal areas and their lakes and streams, all over the world. I think we’re on 6 continents now, 15 to 20 countries.

So we’re the fastest-growing grassroots environmental organization in the world and it’s all based on a very simple model which is local people taking into their own hands the need and the responsibility and the privilege of working on and restoring a local waterway that’s been abused through, you know, decades or centuries if you will of industrial activity. So it’s a terrific success story, I would guess that if the Hudson River was a ten, if you rated it a ten, you know, when the Lanape Indians were living along its shores and before Columbus showed up, it was probably a two by the mid ‘60s when we got our start and I’d say we’re probably roughly a 7 today and that’s real progress and, you know, you can swim the length of the Hudson on most days in most areas of the Hudson, absolutely safely, and people do that by the thousands every spring and summer and fall. There are some problems with swimming, which I’ll get to in a second, but people are back out on the river fishing, people are picnicking, kayaking in record numbers. The bald eagles have returned to the Hudson in droves, you know, ecologically speaking the Hudson has really come back to, you know, not to a fully restored river, but much, much better than it was in the past.

Question: What work still needs to be done on the Hudson?

Alex Matthiessen: So, you know, we’re in good shape relatively speaking, however that’s not to say that there aren’t some remaining obstacles and they’re serious ones. One is General Electric as everybody knows dumped 1.3 million pounds of PCBs, Polychlorinated Biphenyls, which are highly toxic to humans and to animals, into the river up around Hudson Falls over a 40 year period, a 30 year period from the mid ‘40s to the mid ‘70s. Those PCBs were banned in the ‘70s, but the damage had been done, the PCBs had made their way throughout the upper Hudson and the lower part of the river, the estuary and spread throughout the entire eco system. The Hudson River as a result is the largest Superfund site in the country; we have been working for 30 years, again, in coalition with some of our other environmental partners and concerned citizens, to try and force General Electric to clean up that mess, and at this point they can’t meaningfully remove PCBs from the lower part of the Hudson because they’re so dispersed, it’d be impossible to try and collect them.

But that 40 mile stretch between their facilities up in Hudson Falls and the federal dam at Troy is a hot spot, there’s PCBs shore to shore, bank to bank and there’s a great opportunity to clean those up because that 40 mile stretch serves as an ongoing source of 500 pounds of PCBs that come over the dam every year, down to the lower estuary and that means that the PCB levels in fish are being maintained at levels that are too high, that exceed the FDA and the EPA regulations. So that’s why we had to close a number of the commercial fisheries on the Hudson like the striped bass and eel and others because of the PCB contamination. So until we remove, you know, the couple hundred thousand pounds of PCBs that are in that hotspot area, we’re not going to remove or eliminate the source of PCBs down in the lower part of the river and until we do that we won’t be able to reopen those fisheries.

So that’s one issue, another issue is sewerage, you know, the Clean Water Act helped us to force municipalities to build these sewerage treatment plants up and down the river. But now these plants are 30, 40 years old some of them and they’re starting to fail. So we need serious help from the federal government in particular and from the state government as well to get these municipalities the money they need to upgrade or to replace these plants because we’re now starting to have ongoing regular discharges, unintended discharges of raw or partially treated sewerage into the Hudson and if we continue at this pace, swimming in the Hudson at one point will no longer be safe and even now, you don’t wanna swim after it’s been raining, near one of these sewerage treatment plants, especially ones that combine their sewerage and their storm water because you almost certainly will have a discharge.

So it’s a major problem in New York City; it’s a major problem in Albany; it’s a problem in Yonkers and some of the other larger towns along the river. So, you know, there’s definitely still a number of issues that are of concern. One more that I just really wanna mention because it reflects a new report that we’re just about to issue, which is despite what we had thought, while there were improvements over the last 40 years, a lot of the signature fish of the Hudson are actually in various states of decline; 10 of the 13 fish that our researchers looked at are in various states of decline. We’re talking about the American Shad, the Atlantic Sturgeon, the Tom Cod, the American Eel, these fish are in trouble and there’s all kinds of possible explanations. One is actually global warming, potentially, we’ve already started to see the Hudson River average temperature’s going up by a couple of degrees even now and that can radically affect a lot of these species ability to come up into the river and spawn, reproduce successfully.

Secondly, you’ve got a lot of invasive species like the Zebra Mussel which have radically changed the food chain in the Hudson and basically removed a lot of the phytoplankton and other food sources of some of these fish. You’ve got these old, 5 old antiquated power plants on the Hudson which withdraw huge volumes of water from the Hudson every single day. Indian Point, which is the nuclear facility, alone, withdraws 2.4 billion gallons per day from the Hudson. That is almost twice as all of New York City combined uses on a daily basis in terms of water consumption. So this one plant is causing enormous impacts.