The Hudson River Estuary, Clean Water Act and the Riverkeeper
Matthew R. Berger
Made in United States of America
Printed by Matthew R. Berger
Vol. 1, April 2012
Environmental Law of the University of Rhode Island
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The Clean Water Act- 33 U.S.C. §1251 et seq. (1972) works to establish a simple plan for helping to regulate the discharge of pollutants into all waters within the United States. It also regulates and enforces quality standards for all water bodies. “Under the CWA, the EPA has implemented pollution control programs such as setting wastewater standards for industry “(4). Responding to these issues, the Riverkeeper will steps in to enforce these laws.
The Riverkeeper is an environmental non-profit involved in protecting the Hudson River and its tributaries. It is interested as well in protecting the watersheds that provide New York City with its drinking water. Although it was the first “keeper” to be founded, it is one of over one hundred and fifty “keepers” globally, who are all members of the Waterkeeper Alliance organization.
Estuary; Tidal fresh-water wetland; CSO’s; Mouth of the river; Dredging; Invasive Species; Land Cover mapping; CWA; EPA; Riverkeeper; HREMA, CERCLA
Environmental Policy Act (1970)- Federal
Department of Environmental Conservation (1970)- Federal
Clean Water Act (1972)- Federal
Hudson River Fisheries Management Act (1979)- New York State
Riverkeeper (1986)- New York State
The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (1980)- Federal
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The Hudson River, which meanders from the mountains of New York as just a small brook, and transforms into a wider river as it reaches New York City is an iconic water body which is considered by most to be the birthplace of the American Environmental Movement. In the 1960’s, scientists with the assistance of fishermen and involved citizens, with a determination to help revive the then polluted Hudson River by verbally protesting the wide spread pollution of the river by small and large companies. How they went about enforcing their voice was through bringing the community together to fight back using public use rights and democratic ecological governance. This movement, which was led by Robert H. Boyle, author of The Hudson River, A Natural and Unnatural History and a senior writer (2) at Sports Illustrated were determined to make headway on this important issue in the early 1960’s. The Hudson River Fishermen’s Association which was formed in 1966 changed its name to The Riverkeeper in 1986. It came about from “a blue-collar coalition of commercial and recreational fishermen” who were determined to save the Hudson River from its polluters (1).
Riverkeeper, “is an environmental non-profit organization dedicated to the protection of the Hudson River and its tributaries, as well as the watersheds that provide New York City with its drinking water” (3). This organization, fueled by citizen input, is mostly interested in decreasing the influence of industry on the environment (1).
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The Hudson River wasn’t always as majestic as it is today. It was once the Hudson Valley’s sewage disposal plant. Raw sewage discharged from industrial, heavy development, as well as residential growth contributed to a drop in water quality.
The Hudson River Fishermen responded to this by raising awareness within the community. Come the 1960’s, citizens and Fishermen were now fighting back. In fact, the legal battle of saving Storm King Mountain on the Hudson led to the passing of the National Environmental Review Act. Moving forward, in 1972 when the Clean Water Act made it illegal to discharge pollutants into waterways without the proper permit, this created major change for the Hudson River as the law now enforced controlling measures on the dumping into the Hudson and its tributaries. Part of the Clean Water Act created a ‘citizen suit provision’ which provided recourse for The Riverkeeper to prevent illegal lobbying on the part of industry (5).
During the 1960s to 70s, public concern for protection of the Hudson River’s fisheries led to the founding of the New York ‘Hudson River Fisheries Management Act of 1979.’ Going forward to 1987, recognizing that protection and conservation of the Hudson’s fish, habitats and ecosystem required a much broader approach, the fisheries law was replaced by the Hudson River Estuary Management Act , found in Section 11-0306 of the New York State Environmental Conservation Law. This act helped the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to develop a plan for the conservation of the estuary (the tidal portion of the river from the Troy dam south to the Verrazano Narrows in New York). The plan included providing for education and enforcement of procedures to control run-off from surrounding areas.
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This section will address the Hudson River Estuary Management Plan, which was created to protect the Hudson River, and bring about positive change. The actions taking place to protect and re-generate the Hudson River are dredging to clean up PCB’s, stopping raw sewage runoff from entering the river and educating the community about how their efforts can positively affect the Hudson River. River Keeper and EPA collaborate to enforce the provisions of The Clean Water Act and HREMA.
“In 1996, the Hudson River Estuary Management Plan and the first Estuary Action Plan was released. The Action Plan was then updated in 1998 and 2001. The Action Plan identified priority commitments that combine scientific research, active resource protection and management, public involvement, and education in an integrated ecosystem
management approach to the resource. During every update, public input and review have been crucial to the program's evolution and maturation, (8).”
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The most recent update to HREA policy is the Hudson River Estuary Action Agenda 2010-2014. A major priority of the Agenda was to address the growth of the Hudson River and NY metro area and the pressure it put on water resources due to increased demand for clean water (8).
Sewer infrastructure remains insufficient according to the needs of the metro area. Polluted runoff caused by changes in land use as well as contamination from fertilizers and pesticides continue to threaten the aesthetic quality, drinking quality and volume of the area’s water. Numerous aquifer recharge areas are still unprotected from contaminations(8).
Polychlorinated biphenyls or PCB’s are toxins which have been proven to cause cancer in laboratory animals and likely, are a cause of cancer in humans. Not only do PCB’s likely cause cancer in people, but they also cause immunological problems, reproductive issues and low birth weight. Those especially vulnerable include pregnant women and children. The EPA has recognized PCB’s as serious toxins, and backing them up are organizations such as the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, the American Cancer Society and the World Health Organization.
A common leisure activity along the Hudson River is fishing from the estuary. This poses potential health risks among a population which is largely unaware. What’s wrong with this picture? There are rules stating who can eat fish out of the Hudson River, and where it is not recommended to consume fish at all. Most people are not aware of this. All it takes is for one adult fisherman or woman to tell their kids or friends that it is perfectly fine to consume fish
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from the river because they have always done so. The New York State Department of Health states that children under the age of fifteen and women who are of childbearing age should not eat any fish from the Hudson River and that between the Federal Dam and Hudson Falls, no fish should be consumed at all. If the average person were to read that, one could imagine the fear that people would have in eating any fish at all from the River (5). The Clean Water Act prioritizes providing education to prevent these issues.
Looks Can Be Deceiving
Looks can be deceiving when referring to image of the Hudson River. The changes and improvements from twenty to thirty years ago are substantial, but realistically, the PCB’s in the sediment are not clearly visible. Thanks to the actions taken by the Federal CWA and advances in treatment to raw sewage, the harmful bacteria has significantly declined, which has in turn increased the populations of fish and wildlife. What affects the fish and wildlife, as well as recreational activity along the Hudson River is the occurrence of CSO’s. Major flooding events or even simple rain storms adding as little as one-twentieth of an inch of precipitation can “overload the system”(5). This occurrence often puts a major halt on the recovery of the Hudson River.
Combined Sewage Overflow
“More than 27 billion gallons of raw sewage and polluted stormwater discharge out of 460 combined sewage overflows (“CSOs”) into New York Harbor alone each year. Although water quality in New York Harbor and throughout the Hudson River Estuary has improved significantly over the last few decades, many parts of the waterfront and its beaches are still
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unsafe for recreation after it rains. As little as one-twentieth of an inch of rain can overload the system. The main culprit is outmoded sewer systems, which combines sewage from buildings with dirty storm water from streets (5).”
PCB’s Are Going Nowhere
Although PCB’s do break down, it does not mean that they are going away. The durable quality of PCB’s which made them so valuable to industry is also the reason why they are so hazardous to the environment. Although PCB’s do degrade partially through a process called ‘natural de-chlorination,’ this does not mean that they are harmless after going through the effects of that process. No matter what their level of chlorination is, the EPA still considers PCB’s to be extremely toxic to people and wildlife (4).
Is The Hudson River Cleaning Itself?
Since 1977, PCB levels in river water and fish have significantly declined. Often, citizens living along the river, scientists and other environmental specialists will insist that the river is cleaning itself through natural processes. This is not entirely true though, since the decline is mainly due to the ban on PCB discharges in 1977. The decline in PCB levels is also largely due to the Hudson River PCB Reclamation Demonstration Project which was added as ‘Section 116’ in the Clean Water Act on October 2nd, 1980. Congress appropriated twenty million dollars for the project and funds were available until 1983 (4).
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PCB Levels In Fish
Over the past twenty years PCB levels have declined. But it seems that the decrease has stopped, and analysts are seeing no recent change. Levels are high enough to require restrictions on eating certain fish species in the river as well as bans on commercial fishing. Due to erosion and river flow patterns, PCB’s are not safely buried. Because there is erosion to the bed of the river, sediment, which has PCB toxins in it, is available for consumption to fish and wildlife. In response, a long term and short term bans on commercial fishing and fishing for recreational purposes have been imposed (4).
As much as “1,650 parts per million, are still found at the surface of the sediment, and 90% of the sediment cores collected in 2002 and 2003 had PCBs in the top two inches, (4).
Why Dredging Is Important, And How Source Control Alone Will Not Clean Up The River
General Electric is the main reason why the Hudson River is poisoned with PCB’s. Approximately three to five ounces of PCB’s are discharged into the river per day through small fractures in bedrock underneath the General Electric Hudson Falls plant. One to two pounds of PCB’s are discharged from Thompson Island Pool into the Hudson river each day. Community members have argued that closing the plant in Hudson Falls would help PCB levels go down in fish, at least somewhat (4). In EPA’s cleanup plan, source control is an important factor in fighting the PCB discharge into the Hudson River, but alone is insufficient to control PCB levels. Dredging must be done along with source control efforts, despite its expense. In May 2009, phase one
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of General Electric’s dredging of hot spots along the Hudson River began in 2009.
Another law that was used in conjunction with fighting pollution, and encouraging cleanup of hazardous sites in the Hudson river valley is The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980. It not only enforces recovery of polluted areas, provides compensation to those affected and brings about liability suits against polluters, but also fights for not only human health but a positive change for environmental health (9). It was enacted by congress to enforce recovery of those polluted sites such as General Motors plant in Tarrytown, New York. “… I had heard that people who lived along that stretch of the river knew what color General Motors was painting its cars by the color of the river” (10). Not only is this act of pollution destructive to anyone or anything using the river for recreational purposes, but this means that it wasn’t just paint leaking into the river. Until PCB’s were banned in 1976, they were being used as additives to the materials in ‘insulators, coolants, and lubricants’ (10). There were many other factories along the river creating and using these products as well. So General Electric is certainly not in this alone. In general, positive change is occurring for wildlife due to community action, General Electric and General Motors taking responsibility for their pollution, and higher standards being set for human health.
The Hudson River Estuary Action Agenda
In accordance with the Hudson River Estuary Action Agenda, authorities are working towards achieving swimmable water quality for the Hudson River. Communities along the Hudson River are upgrading water and sewer facilities for community revitalization and smart growth. The
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communities are working towards protecting water quality in streams, drinking water supplies and the estuary. The towns along the Hudson are working towards reducing sewer and storm water outflows, as well as cleaning up toxic pollution along the edges, surface and bed of the river. (8).
As the community is working towards a cleaner Hudson River, towns, officials and citizens are working towards other goals, including ‘Ensuring clean water, protecting and restoring fish, wildlife and their habitats, providing water recreation and river access, adapting to climate change (solar and wind power) and conserving our world famous scenery, (8).’
A lot of the support given to the cleaning of the Hudson River has to do with ‘boosting the economic vitality of the region (8). For example, ‘The New York/New Jersey port generates $20 billion and creates 230,000 jobs annually; natural, historic & recreational destinations on the river in the valley generate millions from tourism; managed fisheries sustain small businesses, while bird watching generates millions for local economies…’ (8) and one of the most important factors is that our water resources supply New York City and support local population growth.
The estuary is a prime breeding area for striped bass. People enjoy fishing for striped bass, and for those fishermen on Cape Cod, in Canada or in the Carolinas, their striped bass was likely born in the Hudson River. More specifically, “The Estuary is a “Noah’s Ark” for Atlantic coast migratory fish and wildlife species, (8).”
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This brings light to Action Item 2 in the Hudson River Estuary Action Agenda. “The estuary and its valley support an extraordinary diversity of plants, animals, and fishes that sustain life, support outdoor recreation, define our region’s natural beauty, and attract tourists. However, many river and valley habitats have been damaged and disconnected by sprawling patterns of development and by past practices such as the filling of wetlands. Several economically valuable fisheries are currently in decline such as the shad and herring fisheries in the Hudson valley; some are restricted or closed such as the striped bass fisheries. Conserving our region’s biological diversity will provide significant benefits to the ecosystem, to human life and to our tourism, water resource and outdoor recreation economies, (8).”
Students, children, adults and other community members alike have assisted in conserving and restoring wetlands, field forest and stream habitats. Additionally, some other community objectives remain to assist in sustaining important fishery habitats, including important species such as striped bass, sturgeon, American shad, black bass, herring and eel. Town and village committees are also assisting communities to identify and sustain natural resources for the ecosystem and economic benefits that they provide.
Connecting Nature With Recreation
The next challenge in the Hudson River Estuary Action Agenda is providing water recreation and river access. “River access renews our connection with nature, sustains recreation and tourism, and stimulates waterfront revitalization. However, getting to the river in many communities is difficult due to railroad tracks, land ownership patterns and the availability of facilities. Access to the river for education and research is also needed, so that we can support informed decision-making about the river and the valley. This will enable us to create a new, vital and sustainable future, (Hudson River Estuary Action Agenda—2010-2014).”
Focusing on important aesthetic appeal and economic benefits, the plan outlined some measures in order to gain success for Action Item 3. Creating more docks, fishing, boating and
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swimming sites will help connect the community with the river. AI3 outlines new opportunities to provide facilities such as greenway trails, parks and preserves for underserved communities.
This links environmental education and river access sites in order to create recreational waterfront destinations.
Action Item 4 has to do with adapting to climate change. “Climate change is happening in the Hudson Valley and around the globe. Sea level in the Hudson has increased 4-6 inches since 1960 and will continue to rise. The intensity of heavy rain storms is increasing, and with it the risk of flooding in some cities, towns and villages. Winters are trending warmer, and plants and animals are moving northward. Reducing the impacts of climate change and preparing our region for its effects will take solid information, collective action and fresh ideas about how to develop new economies that take advantage of these changes, (8).”
Action Item 4 provides for communities to come together to work on the following principles: increasing the number of ‘Climate Smart’ communities that are taking local action; mapping flood prone areas and provide assistance to waterfront communities; preparing for
the impacts of storm surges and sea level rise on the estuary and stimulating the local green economy (8).
Scenic Hudson River
Action Item 5 states, “The Hudson Valley is a world famous scenic area, on par with Yosemite and the Grand Tetons. Our forests, wetlands, mountains and streams offer beauty that attracts visitors from around the world. Local land use decisions have regional impact and must be informed by an understanding of our shared assets (8). In order to accomplish this,
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communities are adopting local scenic and open space plans, and improving land use decisions so that the region’s natural assets are conserved.
“Biodiversity is important to us all, because it provides the ecological services on which we depend. Healthy, naturally vegetated areas clean our drinking water, ensure our water supply, provide pollinators for crops, and buffer and reduce storm damage. These services are often provided by nature’s ‘green infrastructure’ at a lower cost than built systems. If we conserve biodiversity, we are less likely to suffer disruptions of these essential services as our climate continues to change. The Hudson River Estuary Program is partnering with communities to encourage biodiversity conservation at the local level to sustain the health and resiliency of the entire estuary watershed. By providing technical assistance, information, and training, the Estuary Program offers strategies for ‘smart planning’ which supports economic growth and equality of life, while keeping nature in mind, (The Hudson River Estuary Program NYSDEC Region 3).”
Within the estuary watershed lie some target habitats. Shoreline corridors provide important habitats along the river and its tributary streams for river otter, wood turtle, cerulean warbler,
wading birds, trout, stream salamanders and Hudson River water nymph. Unbroken forests are needed by scarlet tanager, warblers, wide-ranging mammals, hawks, owls, box turtles, and plants like fringed polygala flower. Grasslands and shrub lands shelter northern harrier, bobolink, eastern meadowlark, golden-winged warbler, short-eared owl and uncommon butterflies. Wetlands, including marshes, swamps, wet meadows, bogs and surrounding lands support American bittern, marsh wren, blanding turtle, northern leopard frog and a rich diversity of flora such as the pitcher plant. Seasonal woodland pools for animal populations that are declining throughout the Northeast which include Jefferson, marbled, and spotted salamanders, wood frog, spotted turtle, fairy shrimp and others. Caves and cliff habitats are
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used by bats, peregrine falcon, overwintering snakes, migrating hawks, and rare cliff plants like purple cliffbrake and prickly pear (8).
There are numerous steps communities can take to determine which natural areas provide the most benefits and how to conserve them. Step 1- Identifying priority habitats and important natural resources with an area. Step 2- Identifying high conservation priority habitats in the Hudson Valley including un-fragmented forests, stream corridors, wetlands, grasslands and shrub land’s, caves and cliffs, and the estuary shoreline. Of course, not all natural areas have equal biological importance. For example, migration corridors and connected habitats often have higher value than degraded or fragmented habitat. Step 3- Identifying of conservation priorities provides a foundation for smart growth and protection of biodiversity. By knowing what resources are important and where they occur, municipalities can include sound recommendations in their master plan updates, open space acquisitions, and site-plan reviews. Understanding an even broader view of the ecological landscape can contribute to watershed planning, inter-municipal agreements, and regional initiatives. Whether at the site or regional scale, considering biodiversity early in the planning process benefits an array of stakeholders, and contributes to the long-term protection of the area’s natural heritage, (The Hudson River Estuary Program NYSDEC Region 3).
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As a part of the action agenda, New York hired Steve Stanne, an interpretive specialist workingin the Hudson River Estuary Program/ NYS Water Resources Institute at Cornell University to help link the Conservation Efforts for the Estuary with education. They created a website, which provides for educators pre-packaged lesson plans to incorporate into studies such as English language arts, mathematics, science, social studies and other specific lesson plans for grades kindergarten through third grade. “The Estuary Program partners with other groups to develop a full range of curriculum for K-12 study of the Hudson. The Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies' Changing Hudson Project features web-based curriculum designed by teachers and scientists to engage high school students in exciting, innovative science connecting them with current research about the river. Teaching the Hudson Valley offers a growing online collection of K-12 lesson plans that connect visits to sites of environmental, historical and cultural interest with classroom study of math, science, history, art and other subjects, (www.dec.ny.gov).” Educating children on policies and conservation efforts pertaining to surrounding water bodies from a young age is vital to future environmental progress (8).
In conclusion, the Hudson River Estuary Program has used a variety of methods to accomplish its goal of cleaning the Hudson River. With the notion of ‘sustaining and regenerating life in and around the Hudson River for eternity in mind’ (8), there is no reason why this goal is not reachable considering the amount of community effort and support towards cleaning up the
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Hudson. Simply put, education shall be our savior in accomplishing the overall mission of preserving the beautiful Hudson River Estuary for future generations to enjoy.
Almost three decades later, were seeing the Hudson River return to its former state of glory. It is finally regaining its strength as the regions gem. Community members, boaters, bathers and fisherman come from all over the region, and in fact the country to enjoy all the recreational aspects that the Hudson River has to offer. Beyond the stunning views that come with experiencing the joy of the Hudson River, we see that wildlife and pedestrians are co-inhabiting the coast of the River for recreational purposes. Towns are upgrading their coastal recreational possibilities by adding more bike paths, noting ‘Kodak Moment areas’ and working to stabilize the edge from which the town or city meets the Hudson River. This helps to reduce erosion, reduce pollution, and create a safer edge for pedestrians to be a part of the Hudson River. Industries and municipalities are finally thinking twice before polluting into the Hudson and have really created a respect for living and operating near this gem of a river. The Riverkeeper, CWA and EPA are all working on keeping this respect energized in order to avoid a reverse in water quality due to relaxed regulations. In doing so, as a community, we must ensure that regulations be met and or exceeded and that all laws and regulations are enforced to the fullest extent. There are still areas which are going through increased development, and are noted as spots which are still seriously threatened. With budgets dropping at the Local, State and Federal Levels, Riverkeeper seems to be our savior in the battle of keeping the Hudson River Estuary and associated shore land’s sustained and continually cleaned for the future of the Hudson River.
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