The Challenge Ahead

As his organization turns 40, riverkeeper Alex Matthiessen reflects on the progress made to clean up the Hudson and suggests what needs to be done to make even more progress.

The Challenge Ahead

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Riverkeeper has been cleaning up the Hudson for 40 years. Now, the organization¡¯s president, Alex Matthiessen, explains why new strategies must be adopted if further progress is to be made

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By Alex Matthiessen


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One night 40 years ago, a group of fishermen gathered in the American Legion Hall in Crotonville, Westchester County, to protest the sorry state of the Hudson. The river had been treated as an open dump for as far back as anyone could remember; by 1966, it was so polluted that parents forbade their children from dipping a toe in the water, let alone going for a swim or catching a fish to bring home for supper. Designated on American Geographical Society maps as an ¡°industrial waste conveyance,¡± the Hudson had become the butt of jokes on late-night television. But for the fishermen, it was serious business as their very livelihood was at stake. Angry and riled up, the only thing they could think to do was to sabotage the businesses that caused the river¡¯s decline.


But a Sports Illustrated writer and angler named Robert Boyle who was present that evening suggested that rather than break the law, they should enforce it. Two little-known 19th-century statutes offered a bounty to anyone who turned in evidence of pollution that led to a conviction. Calling themselves the Hudson River Fishermen¡¯s Association, the group determined to track down and prosecute polluters until they eliminated every one of them. They started with Penn Central; soon after, they joined Scenic Hudson in the legendary battle to save Storm King Mountain, which Con Ed had hoped to turn into a massive hydroelectric facility. Thanks to precedents established in the Storm King case, those old 19th-century statutes were replaced with more modern laws like the federal Clean Water Act of 1972, which for the first time gave citizens the right to bring lawsuits against polluters directly.


In 1983, Bob Boyle and ¡°the Fishermen¡± hired an activist named John Cronin to be the organization¡¯s first ¡°riverkeeper.¡± The concept of having a full-time sentinel stationed on the river patrolling for polluters was so powerful that the group later adopted ¡°Riverkeeper¡± as its name.


For 40 years, Riverkeeper has used law, science, and old-fashioned grassroots organizing to prosecute hundreds of polluters, including Ciba-Geigy, ARCO, General Electric, and even New York City, resulting in over a billion dollars in environmental remediation and restoration. Over that time, we have seen the recovery of signature Hudson River fish like the striped bass and shortnose sturgeon, and a reopening of swimming beaches on the shore. Tens of thousands of residents and visitors now flock to the river each year to boat, bird watch, swim, and fish. And for better or worse, the river¡¯s relatively clean state also is responsible for the revitalization ¡ª and the creeping suburbanization ¡ª of the waterfront.


The remarkable success achieved by Riverkeeper and other groups (including Clearwater and Scenic Hudson) in cleaning up the Hudson is undeniable. And yet, we are in need of a significant strategic shift ¡ª from a reactive tact to a pre-emptive one ¡ª if we hope to complete the task of restoring the Hudson and preserving our natural heritage for all time.


Although suing polluters has been an enormously effective tactic in rescuing the Hudson (and one that we will continue to rely on for some time), it fails as a long-term strategy for two reasons: it¡¯s expensive, and it doesn¡¯t address the underlying reasons why companies pollute in the first place.


Given the huge financial disparity between advocacy groups like Riverkeeper and our mostly corporate foes, we are unlikely to ever have the level of funding necessary to keep fully apace of the despoilers. It¡¯s like that ¡°whack-a-mole¡± game at the arcade: every time you slam one polluter, another one pops up somewhere else. Advocates are forced to scramble to try to keep up with the assaults on our environment, despite being heavily outnumbered and outgunned.


The problem is that polluters are still motivated to pollute, even if they eventually get caught. The existing regulatory disincentives don¡¯t deter bad behavior, and incentives not to pollute are practically nonexistent.


New York State¡¯s Department of Environmental Conservation is chronically underfunded and understaffed, which means that a lot of companies are operating on expired permits or are violating their effluent limitations with impunity. Riverkeeper and our army of citizen ¡°watchdogs¡± have been effective in monitoring such polluters, either reporting them to the DEC or prosecuting them ourselves, but invariably more than a few slip by.

And when the DEC does take action, it rarely requires the most rigorous cleanup or imposes anything more than a token fine ¡ª even though the Clean Water Act allows for penalties of up to $32,500 per violation, per day. In other words, it still pays to pollute.


One part of the solution is obvious: elect governors and presidents who are committed to environmental law enforcement so companies will think twice before illegally dumping their waste. If polluters were nabbed and heavily fined every time they violated the law, they would stop polluting. The trouble is that enforcement waxes and wanes with each new federal and state administration, meaning that overall progress in completing the job of restoring our waterways is forever deferred.


     An even more reliable and efficient solution would be to reform our perversely skewed tax system. Currently, we tax the things we ought to be encouraging more of ¡ª income, revenue, sales, and labor, for instance. But we don¡¯t tax the things we want to discourage, like pollution, and gasoline consumption.


     Taxing pollution would provide incentives for good behavior that currently are absent from the marketplace. Firms that reduce their waste output would be rewarded with lower tax bills; the more they reduce their waste, the less tax they pay. We already require companies to monitor and report their discharges, so it should be relatively easy to calculate emissions and levy taxes. And as some of these additional costs are passed on to consumers, we¡¯ll respond by using fewer of the products that pollute our environment. Many details would have to be worked out, but the basic logic of ¡°taxing bads, not goods¡± is unassailable.


     Skeptics will say that businesses will fight to defeat any attempt to implement a green tax shift, fearing an additional tax burden. But any imposition of a pollution tax should be offset, dollar for dollar, with a decrease in corporate income and payroll taxes. With the reduction of such ¡°regressive¡± taxes, more companies would be able to invest in improving productivity. Of course, industrial companies that depend on the free consumption and pollution of resources like air and water surely will want to maintain the status quo. But why should the public continue to subsidize their profit-making while suffering the consequences of dirty air and water?


     Other countries have been using pollution taxes for years. In the Netherlands, a tax on the emissions of heavy metals like lead and mercury resulted in a 90 percent decrease in less than two decades. A German tax on the creation of toxic waste led to a 15 percent drop in just three years. To work in New York without businesses threatening to flee the state, a pollution tax would have to be imposed federally or as part of a regional compact with our Northeast neighbors, much like that recently accomplished with the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, where six Northeastern states agreed to curb their COS emissions.


The idea of using taxes to promote social policy is not new. But given the current unacceptable levels of pollution in New York and across the nation, it is time for us to use positive tax incentives to make a permanent commitment to protecting our air, water, and natural heritage.


Don¡¯t get me wrong. Environmental enforcement has been the principle weapon in the campaign to rescue the Hudson, and Riverkeeper will continue to use litigation to force companies and developers into treating our environment with respect. But, ideally, we will eventually replace the old command-and-control regulatory model with a self-regulating tax structure where eliminating pollution will be in every company¡¯s best (financial) interest.


Ideally, too, enforcement groups like Riverkeeper will eventually put themselves out of business. That may seem naive and unrealistic, at least for the foreseeable future, but we should be thinking in those terms. ¡ö


Alex Matthiessen is the Hudson Riverkeeper and president of Riverkeeper, Inc., which, based on its success on the Hudson, is the model for over 160 ¡°waterkeeper¡± programs on waterways across the globe.

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