When John Lipscomb was in his early 20s he had a love affair that affected the next thirty years of his life. He was a young apprentice in a boatyard. She was a 60-foot wooden schooner. They spent two years together while he learned the trade of boat-building from maritime men who fought in World War II. For Lipscomb it was the beginning of a life on the water. For the next two decades he would live like a vagabond nine months out of the year doing expedition filmmaking and ocean sailing.
Although the Hudson River has improved a great deal in Lipscomb’s lifetime from a dumping ground for raw sewage and oil into a swimmable river, it has not fully outgrown its old problems. Indian Point power plant remains open, and the fish kills and groundwater pollution continue. Paint from the General Motors plant no longer turns the water strange colors, but bottles and plastic containers cover the river’s natural beaches. According to an investigation by “City Limits,” an urban policy journal, 25 billion gallons of toxic storm water and 2 billion gallons of untreated sewage still spew into the Hudson every year, which is more water than an individual would use in 739,726 years.
Lipscomb was not environmentalist in his youth, but he has become a convert. It started when Lipscomb’s daughter was born 16 years ago, and he settled into life on land as manager of Julius Petersen boatyard. Then, in the fall of 1998 a 36-foot boat with a burnt-out engine came hobbling in for repairs. The R. Ian Fletcher belonged to Riverkeeper, a watchdog organization that protects the Hudson River from polluters. When the repairs were finished dignitaries from Albany came down for the ribbon cutting, there was a lot of elbow rubbing and champagne uncorking.
But then months passed by, and the Riverkeeper boat hadn’t budged from the boatyard. Internal shake-ups at Riverkeeper had left no one to pilot it. In the spring of 2000, Riverkeeper called Lipscomb: they needed someone to take consultants out on the water. Lipscomb, who was less than enthusiastic about his position at the boatyard, volunteered to do it for free. “They needed somebody, and I needed that connection [to the river] again,” Lipscomb said. “I was getting a chance to get back to why I got started in the business in the first place.”
Today, Lipscomb, 54, is captain of the Riverkeeper boat. When Lipscomb took over in 2000, the work boat was being used more like a pleasure boat, and was run only 60 engine-hours total a year. Lipscomb now averages 900 engine-hours a year, covering 10,000 miles annually. Once a month he makes a full patrol of the 150-mile estuary, which takes eight days to complete. Lipscomb also makes “an infinite variety” of other trips with researchers, scientists, and media outlets, up and down the river. In the process, he volunteers to cleanup the Hudson’s natural beaches; each trip he fishes out a dozen tires, with rims attached, from the water. Once Lipscomb saw a portable toilet floating down the river like a boat.
Sometimes he second-guesses his efforts. “If Riverkeeper and a bunch of tree-hugging, fish-kissing volunteers go out and clean the beaches for the rest of time, the public will never know. They will never be faced with beaches covered in plastic,” Lipscomb said. Two billion bottles and cans end up in the trash or polluting New York State’s rivers and beaches every year, according to the New York Public Interested Research Group. In 2003, almost 800 bottles and cans were found in Jamaica Bay alone.
The most recent bottle bill aimed at reducing litter in New York State is from 1982, the New York State Returnable Container Law. The law placed a deposit on beer, carbonated drink, and soda water bottles that could be redeemed by the consumer. Under the law, the bottle manufacturer retains any deposits that are not redeemed. Since 1982, the law has facilitated a 74% return for bottles with deposits.
The original bottle law is quickly becoming outdated with the rise in popularity of sports drinks, energy drinks, tea, and bottled water, which are not covered by the law. These non-carbonated bottles have increased as a source of litter and as a non-biodegradable material in landfills. In June 2007 a bigger, better bottle bill was proposed that would encompass non-carbonated beverages and would require beverage companies to return unclaimed deposits to the state to fund recycling and environmental protection programs, as well as creating incentives for supermarkets and redemption centers.
Another area where New York City is failing its waterways is with its sewage treatment centers. A yearlong pilot study by Riverkeeper exposed a trend of decreasing levels of dissolved oxygen, which is essential to maintaining the Hudson’s historic biological diversity. Lower dissolved oxygen levels are caused by warmer water, which in turn is caused both by global warming and by the water coming out of sewage treatment plants.
Sewage treatment plants remove materials and pathogens that are dangerous to humans, namely fecal matter and bacteria, but leave significant amounts of nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorous), chlorine residue (from the treatment process), and heavy metals in the water. Heavy metals, like mercury, can come from the most unlikely places, including the dentistry work flushed down dentist offices’ spittoons. Nor are these plants equipped with the technology to treat for harsh household chemicals, which are often poured directly down drainpipes. “There are 8 million people in New York City, not everyone has to contribute an awful lot to have an impact,” Lipscomb said.
Measures of water quality can be deceiving. Although a river may be safe for humans to swim in, that says little about what lies beneath the surface. “We are talking about water quality for the creatures that live in the water that have no choice. We are talking as though we mean it when we say we want to share the planet,” Lipscomb said.
The greatest threat to water quality in the Hudson is combined sewer overflows, which occur when it rains more than one tenth of an inch. When sewage treatment plants are overwhelmed, 493 overflow pipes direct untreated sewage into the Hudson, to prevent backup into homes and officers. Combined sewage overflows deliver nitrogen, from fertilizer and human feces, coliform bacteria, plastic floatables, polycholorinated biphenyls (PCBs, human carcinogens), and metals, directly into New York City’s rivers.“When it rains a half-inch or more, 25 percent of New York City’s waste water goes into the river untreated,” Lipscomb said. According to Riverkeeper, over 27 billion gallons of raw sewage and polluted water enter the New York Harbor every year.
“When we have a failure it is a failure of infrastructure,” Lipscomb said. New York CityHudson. “If New York City wants clean waters, New York City doesn’t have to worry about what they’re doing in Albany. In the Hudson River, water quality is a local problem. You start at home, you do it where you live,” Lipscomb said.
sewer infrastructure is old and pipes are not large enough. Initiatives such as rain barrels, green streets, and green roofs could help mitigate the stress that sewer overflow puts on the
Lipscomb’s next trip is to check out a private industrial property up river. From the air, several large ponds were discovered that “clearly look sick,” said Lipscomb, “probably a result of runoff from an industrial landfill.” Lipscomb plans to go up and “play dumb and stupid,” and see what he can find out.
The job of boat captain is not always easy, from the weeks away from his family to run-ins with gun-waving people who don’t like him sniffing around. Lipscomb’s favorite season to be on the river is in the fall, when the hundreds of boats in slips along the river’s edge during the summer months disappear for the season. “It is like the river travels back in time,” Lipscomb said.