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Susquehanna Life

Part II of the Interview with the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper Michael R. Helfrich

Aug 28, 2014 02:40PM ● By Erica Shames

The Hudson River 

SL: What’s the history behind riverkeepers?

MH: In the 50s and early 60s, folks were coming back from WWII and Korea to their traditional fishing villages on the Hudson River and noticing big industrial changes. Their families had been fishing there, some of them, for 300 years. The railroads were blocking off their fishing areas, and dumping pollution in the waterways; power companies were threatening to build new power plants that would chew up millions of fish every day; and Standard Oil was bringing oil barges up through the river, and washing out their tankers into the river. Folks counted on the river for their livelihoods, but also used it for recreation. In those days you didn’t travel across the country for recreation; your Disneyland was the river. 
SL: What did these veterans do to try to reclaim their river?

MH: 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 magazine, found a law from the 1800s called the Rivers and Harbors Act. It said if you turn someone in and the government finds them to be criminally liable for polluting the waterways, you’re given a bounty. They started going after the polluters, and were given a small sum of money for their efforts. They bought a boat and started going up and down the Hudson River, and picking off these polluters one by one until today, the Hudson River is one of the cleanest rivers in the country. 

SL: How did that culminate in the founding of a more organized body of riverkeepers?

MH: The Clean Water Act of 1972 is the real teeth of the riverkeeper model: it allows us to stop water polluters with a clause that says if the government is not doing its job, any citizen of the United States can step into the shoes of the attorney general and file a Clean Water Act lawsuit against polluters. 

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