This interview was originally published on my blog Against Nature which explores the environment and the social effects of climate change. Go there to read more in depth interviews with the people who are thinking, planning, and fighting for our very existence on this planet.
Marc Yaggi is the Executive Director of Waterkeeper Alliance. Waterkeeper Alliance acts as the neighborhood watch writ large for an astounding 337 bodies of water, in 39 countries and growing. In the Waterkeeper model, citizens volunteer to watch for polluters and keep an eye on their local waterways. If anything occurs Waterkeeper Alliance helps those communities build a legal team that then uses the law to stop the polluting, and save the waterway.
Marc and I discuss his journey as an activist, the founding and history of the Hudson Riverkeeper (and what later became the Waterkeeper Alliance), the growth of the conservation movement, the Clean Water Act vs. the 1898 Rivers and Harbors Act, the all out assault on the environment by the Trump administration, and the ways you can help.
I spoke to Marc in his office in downtown Manhattan on Tuesday, December 19th. The interview was lightly edited for brevity.
Michael Lee Nirenberg: I read that you studied to be an Environmental Lawyer. Is this always what you wanted to do on some level?
Marc Yaggi: It came somewhat later. In my teenage years I grew up in the Susquehanna River Watershed in Pennsylvania. As a boy I would go out there all the time with my dog - spring, summer, and fall - and we went fishing. I always thought that everyone could just go swimming in their local waterway, or could turn on the tap and get a glass of water and drink it, or go fishing and bring it home to feed it to their family for dinner. I realized as I got older that not everyone could do that, and it seemed like such an injustice. It was formative for me and such an important part of my life, just knowing that you needed water to survive and a lack of access to clean water seemed like a travesty. I knew I was interested in this. I thought law would be a channel to help on environmental issues.
MN: This is early. You said you were a teenager? When you became interested in the law what was the next step? I imagine law school.
MY: Yeah, I went to Pace Law School which is up in Westchester County. It's known for its environmental law program, and in my second year of law school in the mid-1990s. I was able to enroll in this program called The Environmental Litigation Clinic. In The Environmental Litigation Clinic 10 students every semester get to do anything that a practicing lawyer could do, as long as they are supervised by the attorneys in the program. The main client for the clinic was the Hudson Riverkeeper. That was my first exposure to the Waterkeeper model. I started representing Hudson Riverkeeper on a number of lawsuits when I was in law school, and really like that model of the community-based advocate protecting the water supply. It was a fantastic opportunity, and I was in a situation where I was taking on cases that would be investigating a pollution source, and taking samples to try to develop a case to bring to a courtroom against a polluter. So that left a mark on me. After law school, I went and worked for the Environmental Law Institute in Washington DC for a couple years and was hired to go work for Hudson Riverkeeper full-time from there.
MN: When you were in the clinic working on Riverkeeper litigation, where were they? This must have been about ten years after they formed?
MY: The roots go back to the 60s but they officially became Riverkeeper in 1983, so this is maybe a little over a decade later. They had a lot of success early so it attracted a lot of attention and they were able to distinguish themselves on the issues affecting the river and their niche in the local community.
MN: For people who don't know what Riverkeeper is, what is it?
MY: Hudson Riverkeeper is a locally-based advocacy organization here in New York that works to protect the Hudson River and its watershed for the community that uses it for swimming or fishing. The drinking water supply is also part of the watershed of New York City. So, protecting that as well.
MN: So it's a pollution patrol and there are different people watching it.
MY: Yeah, they use what I would say is a combination of citizen action, science, and law to protect. They're out patrolling the waterways looking for pollution and then working to convince the polluter to fix the problem. If the polluter doesn't fix the problem then they use the law to bring an enforcement action to force the polluter to clean up the mess.
There are now 337 Waterkeepers Organizations and Affiliates in 39 countries. They all have to wear a lot of hats. Sometimes you're an educator and you might be in a classroom talking about educating the next generation of a community and its watershed. Sometimes you could be in a town hall testifying about a new wetlands law that's being proposed, or you might in a courtroom.
MN: A Riverkeeper doesn’t necessarily have to be an attorney. You can volunteer to watch a local waterway and work with the community of Riverkeepers, and then bring litigation if you see something going down.
MY: Yeah, it's not required to be a lawyer and not required to be a scientist. The biggest requirement is to be someone that is passionate about the community and the waterway and be willing to stand-up to be a voice for the community and its right to have clean water. You can access scientists. You can access lawyers. You can build a team around you that's going to support that fire in that mission
MN: How did it work before the web? I can imagine looking through the Waterkeeper site it's very easy to source things. How effectively did they communicate before the web? Was there a central office and different satellites?
MY: In terms of Waterkeeper Alliance, it was a lot smaller back then. If you were back pre-internet, I'm not sure we would have a Waterkeeper in Tanzania or Uganda or Nepal or Bhutan. The ability to communicate that way makes the world a lot smaller and makes it a lot easier to strengthen our network. Back then they communicated by phone and by post. I got old copies of letters from the 1980s back and forth between Hudson Riverkeeper and the Delaware Riverkeeper and Long Island Soundkeeper. They would get together in person, at the time it was so small. You had groups back in the mid-to-late 80s, we had Hudson Riverkeeper, Long Island Soundkeeper, Delaware Riverkeeper, NY/NJ Baykeeper, and they could take a couple hours and all be in the same place together to strategize.
MN: At what point did Riverkeeper merge into Waterkeeper and encompass all the different waterways. What was that expansion process?
MY: Would it be helpful if I gave you the cliff’s notes version of Waterkeeper?
MN: Yes. That would be great.
MY: (Pointing out the window. We are in Waterkeeper Alliance headquarters in downtown Manhattan) Right now we are looking at the New York Harbor. I’ll give you a story and then work backwards.
Waterkeeper Alliance is an international movement of more than 300 locally-based clean water advocacy organizations focusing citizen action on issues that affect our waterways, from pollution to climate change. We currently have 337 Waterkeeper Organizations and Affiliates in 39 countries on 6 continents and they are patrolling 2.6 million square miles of watershed around the world. Our roots go back to the 1960s here in New York on the Hudson. I always go back even a little bit further.
In the 1800s New York Harbor had about 250 square miles of oyster beds out in the harbor, and it was the oyster capital of the world. It was considered to be half the world oyster population here and they were considered among the best oysters on earth. People ate a million of them a day. We named streets after them, like Pearl Street down the street here, or used them in construction. Trinity Church by the World Trade Center is made out of the mortar paste made out of crushed oyster shells and had a real part of the history of this area. It was an indication of how, as New York City grew and the surrounding communities grew, you saw massive amounts of pollution (industrial waste, animal waste, human waste, all raw- nothing treated) being dumped into the harbor and into the river.
In addition to that, everyone was harvesting these oysters and not putting the shells back into the river. They were burying them or using them for construction or what have you. Ultimately it led to what we often do with our natural resources. We pollute them and use them unsustainably. So, by the late 1800s, people were getting sick from eating the oysters. In the mid-1920s they shut down all the oyster beds because people died, and people got sick from eating oysters that once made New York City the oyster capital of the world. New York City was known back then as a lot more than just a port for trading, but also for this amazing oyster bounty. That was gone by the 1920s. We destroyed it that quickly. It just got worse, and in the thirties, forties, and fifties the pollution just multiplied. By the time you got to the 1960s the Hudson River was nearly dead and it was a national laughing stock. They made jokes about it on late night TV shows and nobody in the 60s or 70s went in or around the river during that time. People were fleeing from it, but the sorry state of the river gave birth to the Waterkeeper movement, because at that time in the 60s while the river was dying and nearly dead though it had been one of the most biologically diverse rivers in the North Atlantic.
That sorry state of the river being dead, gave birth to this movement, and it was because of a set of blue-collar recreational/commercial fishermen who had been fishing that river for generations. They learned about it from their parents, who learned about it from their grandparents, and they had planned on passing it on to future generations. A lot of them were in the military and they came back from the wars to find the river was dead, and they were angry. They looked out and what they saw was polluters getting rich, money being taken out of fishermen’s pockets, and food being taken off their table by all these industrial polluters that were getting wealthy. They got together in 1966 at a Veteran of Foreign Wars Hall just upriver in Croton, and they organized what they were going to do to solve the problem. At that time you could tell what color they were painting the cars at General Motors in Tarrytown because it would change the water of the river to red, yellow, etc.. Penn Central Railroad was discharging millions of gallons of oil into the river, and there were millions of insults up and down the river including municipal sewage, industrial waste and so on.
These fishermen started talking about different things they could do. They weren’t environmental lawyers, they weren't chemists or biologists. They were fishermen who were out there every day and understood the rhythm of the river and understood that something was off. So they started talking about maybe shoving a mattress up the pipes of Penn Central Railroad or using dynamite to blow up some of the pipes. Here is a guy named Bob Boyle, who's a legend in the Hudson River Valley. He was the founder of the Waterkeeper movement. Bob was an outdoor editor and writer at Sports Illustrated and did some research. He found that there was a law called the 1898 Rivers and Harbors Act which said that what the polluters were doing was illegal. He got some lawyers to look at it from Time Magazine. They said that the law was still good. It was the books. It was the law of the land and had been on the books for more than 60 years but it had never been enforced. So Bob went ahead and went to this meeting of angry fishermen and said, “We shouldn’t be breaking the law we should be enforcing the law”. He then subsequently got them to coalesce around his vision for using the law and citizen action and science to go after these polluters and to take the river back. So they started using The Rivers and Harbors Act, collecting evidence, securing some prosecutions, and started patrolling.
So then we get into the 1970s. You had your first Earth Day. Twenty million people took to the streets and demanded clean water and clean air that led to the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Conservation Resource Recovery Act. All these different laws like NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act), the ESA (Endangered Species Act), all these laws are passed in the 1970s.
Citizen supervision said that, for example, if I like to walk around and canoe along the Hudson River, but there's a pipe of raw sewage discharging where I like to canoe, and I don't want to canoe there anymore, then I'm damaged. I'm harmed and I could sue the polluter for violating the Clean Water Act.
So that's what they started doing, bringing Clean Water Act actions, and they started Hudson Riverkeeper in 1983. They hired their first Riverkeeper, a guy named John Cronin. They started using the Clean Water Act. One of the earliest cases that they had was against Exxon and they attracted a lot of media attention. Exxon was both discharging petrochemicals into the Hudson River out of their barge tankers, and also going further up the Hudson to get fresh water and taking it back to Aruba to use in their swimming pools.
That attracted a lot of attention, so all of a sudden other people learned about the model and wanted to replicate it. Then there was as you know: the Long Island Soundkeeper, Delaware Riverkeeper, the NY/NJ Baykeeper, Casco Baykeeper in Maine and Cook Inletkeeper in Alaska. Those groups learned from each other, shared ideas and realized around the mid-1990s that there were more people that wanted to join the fold and emulate the model. So they say they thought it might make more sense for them to create an organization that would honor the grassroots nature (of Riverkeeper) and make sure it stayed bottoms up and locally-based, but that would also be an entity that could help process all these new applications, provide resources, support and make sure all these groups stayed connected to each other. Help them with their local fights, but then also help transform them into a coordinated global movement for clean water. That's when they founded Waterkeeper Alliance. Officially incorporated in 1999, and after a few different attempts, the original name in the mid-90s was: The National Alliance of River, Sound, and Baykeepers, which is a little bit of a mouthful. Thankfully they shortened that up. In 1999 there were 34 Waterkeepers: 33 in the United States, and 1 in Canada.
MN: Damn, that was good Marc. Very concise. I read this story several times preparing for this and that’s certainly the highlights reel to the best of my knowledge.
MY: I was trying to get it in there in a short way.
MN: Has the 1898 Rivers and Harbors Act ever been in danger by any of the previous administrations? I want to put a pin in discussing the present because there is a lot to cover there.
MY: You know what's interesting is that we haven't been using the Rivers and Harbors Act much because the Clean Water Act gives us so many more tools. It’s an interesting question because there are opportunities to use the Rivers and Harbors Act. When it was originally passed it was one of the early exercises by Congress in regulating interstate commerce. To protect these rivers and waterways that serve as water highways for commerce, and to make sure they are not damned, dyked, or a bridge put over them in a way that will interfere with interstate commerce. So they created that act primarily around that, so nothing would obstruct passage.
There were also provisions in there that prohibited the depositing of refuse into the waterways and also the excavation or filling of a waterway. That was the key part that the fishermen used, given that the citizens could use the Clean Water Act now. It was more useful in the 1960s as well, because none of those pipes or anything had permits. They were supposed to have permits for the Rivers and Harbors Act given by the Army Corps of Engineers. None of them had it. When the Clean Water Act came in the 1970s it required a permit for all those discharges. It also set up a process for going through and getting a permit for all these different processes that you have to go through, and it gave citizens the ability to enforce a permit. It gave them an incentive to go out and get a permit.
MN: There was no incentive to get a permit because it didn't seem like it was going to be cost-effective to do so? What you’re saying is it didn't matter anyway because no one was going to enforce it.
MY: There was a lot less vigilance when it was under the Rivers and Harbors Act. You had to convince the U.S. Attorney’s office to prosecute, when I would say even today you'll still find it challenging to convince some that poison in our water is a public health problem. It's a dilemma and a crisis, but looking back in the 1960s and 70s when you could drive with the windows rolled up with no seatbelt on with your kid in the front seat, smoking a cigarette, and probably drinking. Now today you’d go to jail. They were looking at other issues in the 1960s. It was even harder to convince them that there was an issue at all.
MN: Right. When I was last here and interviewed Bobby Kennedy Jr., he was telling me that you could be outside before Earth Day, and before the environmental movement, your shirt would turn yellow from smog in DC. In your own journey when did you meet Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and when did you get involved in the Waterkeeper Alliance?
MY: I first me Bobby when I was a student at the Pace Environmental Litigation Clinic. At the time, in 1996 when I started my first semester at the Pace Environmental Litigation Clinic the two professors who would oversee the students so they could practice as lawyers were Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Karl Coplan. Karl is a professor at Pace now and is on our board of directors and is a brilliant lawyer and it was really great experience learning under both of them. They both have really amazing skill sets. Karl's one of the smartest lawyers you’ll ever come across and Bobby’s such an effective advocate and a great voice. To have that combination together was really great.
MN: They were already working at Riverkeeper at the time?
MY: Bobby worked for Riverkeeper, but also as a professor of law at Pace where he taught the clinic. Karl was at Pace. He didn’t work for Riverkeeper, but the clinic represented Riverkeeper. The clinic represented Riverkeeper on most of their enforcement actions.
MN: So when you were in the clinic did you stay with Riverkeeper, or did you step away and do other things and come back?
MY: When I graduated from law school after I was out of the clinic, my first job was in DC with the Environmental Law Institute. I spent two years there. I graduated in 97, so it was the summer of 1999 when Bobby called me and asked if I'd come back up and work for Hudson Riverkeeper. I said, “Yeah, of course.” So I came up and was put in charge of working to protect New York City's drinking water supply at Hudson Riverkeeper for that program.
MN: That’s really cool. Is John Cronin still alive?
MY: He is. It's been about a year since I last saw John. Bob Boyle, the gentleman I mentioned earlier who really was the founder of the movement in 1996, just passed away last spring unfortunately.
MN: So the Clean Water Act came about in the 1970s and gave you a lot more legal tools to use, right? More protections?
MY: Right. It was 1972 and there were a lot of interesting provisions in the Clean Water Act, one of them being the goal of no discharges by 1985. Of course we have long past missed that goal. It did provide a structure for how we're going to regulate. It’s not perfect, but obviously the biggest and most progressive part of it was citizen supervision, that let citizens stand in as a private attorney general. I always felt like that was almost prescient of Congress. Like they were looking through a crystal ball and could see the Supreme Court using the Citizens United case and how campaign contributions were going to completely corrupt our political system, to where these politicians would be more beholden to the polluters that line their pocketbooks than the people that voted for them. So that leads to our dilemma where we are seeing political decisions that are made every day affect the quality and quantity of our water supplies, or even cost cutting measures or failing to invest in infrastructure but also turning a blind eye to polluters that are lining their pockets with cash. So citizen supervision gives us help to level that playing field a little bit because if government is not going to do its job and enforce the law, the Clean Water Act gives us the ability to do so.
MN: I read the Waterkeeper report on oil trains. Tell me a little bit about oil trains. I feel like it's something that isn’t really discussed in a larger conversation about the environment.
MY: There are three phases to fossil fuels. There's typically the extraction, combustion, and transportation. After they extract the oil, they’re either running it through pipelines or running it on trains. There’s been a 5000 percent increase in the amount of trains running on the rails and a significant amount of crashes. Communities are being jeopardized and threatened by this transportation of fossil fuels, for example the one in Lynchburg, Virginia, and the one that killed a number of people in Quebec. There was one about a year-and-a-half ago up on the Columbia River. I haven't heard anything too much lately, but there's been a spell of them that are happening one after the other, derailing and crashing.
MN: I wonder why we don't hear a lot about oil trains in the media. They don't they get a lot of play.
MY: Yeah, well I think they do if they're running through a community, or if there's a disaster. It became a hot issue about 2 years ago but there hasn't been enough action taken.
MN: So Waterkeeper, in addition to watching the waters, does issue reports and a lot of research projects. Some of the funding goes towards preparing these reports. What are some of the projects that Waterkeeper is doing at the moment?
MY: Currently we’ve got three major advocacy campaigns. One is called Clean and Safe Energy, where we're looking at all aspects of the fossil fuels from extraction, combustion, and transportation, and then trying to promote renewable energy sources.
Then we have are Pure Farms, Pure Waters campaign which focuses on industrial agriculture. Working to try to get industrial agriculture to comply with the Clean Water Act and other environmental law and public health laws, and promoting more sustainable farming practices.
Another one we’ve got is the Clean Water Defense, which is slightly more of a catch-all in terms of it dealing with strengthening and defending clean water and public health laws and other issues that might impact our clean waters. We also have our dams initiative in there working on dams, trying to promote free-flowing rivers, advocating for the removal of dams as much as possible, or mitigating the impact of dams were that's not possible, and opposing new dams. They've all been incredibly busy, but Clean Water Defense I think has obviously - with the election of President Trump and their subsequent all out assault on environmental laws and regulations - kept us very busy over the past year.
MN: I can imagine. I know we don't have a lot of time, but that is such a huge issue because it's an assault on every side. It's almost overwhelming and that’s kind of their strategy.
MN: As an attorney do you know anything about how state’s rights work? I know that a lot of states are staying in the Paris Climate Accord, but how much power do the states actually have to keep companies from polluting and staying within the guidelines of the Paris Climate Accord for the reduction of carbon emissions?
MY: Well with the Paris situation, it’s going to be interesting to see how that's all playing out. I'm really excited about some of the leadership that's been taken in a lot of the states and local communities, and how that groundswell is going to impact us going forward. There are a lot of ways that states can have an impact and states can take action. There’s basically a federal standard and you can be stronger or be more stringent than the federal standard, but you can't be weaker than the federal standard. It's interesting that a lot of the stories that come out of Washington and out of the conservative think tanks leave it to the states: “We don't need to be meddling in it. The states can handle it.” The states aren't all handling it, and in fact, they're cutting enforcement at EPA because of the states “handling it”. The states aren’t doing enforcement. Not enough of it. Some do more than others, but there is not a pervasive amount of state enforcement, and how can there be when you’ve cut funding to the EPA which passes money onto the states to do enforcement? They can’t make a logical argument.
MN: Agreed. Do you have an optimistic view of this country getting through this moment? Do you see this as a blip in overall trends moving towards a more enlightened climate? Or do you take a pessimistic view? Personally, I fluctuate.
I go back and forth. Sometimes I think it's a blip in human consciousness after a backlash of enlightenment and reason. Then I think it’s total regression and a collective fear of change. What do you think?
MY: It's funny. It's a really good question I do tend to fluctuate a little bit. I think there's going to be a tremendous amount of damage caused by this administration, but I think we can get through it. I think it can be a blip. I don't know if I have articulated this recently so it might come out sloppy, but I think it's a combination of factors. I’m optimistic when I look at the generations behind me. Seeing them be more enlightened than I think my generation was and as we were more enlightened than the generation before that. I think that's why some of the fossil fuel tycoons and their puppets in Congress are clawing on with everything they can. They see that everyone behind them is getting more enlightened and their days are numbered. Picture them in the cartoons where there's someone hanging on a ledge or something. Can we smash their fingers off the cliff quickly enough before they do enough damage that’s irreversible?
MN: I couldn't agree more. That keeps me up. I’ve said it before, but I see this too as the last gasp of a twentieth-century fossil fuel tyranny, and it's kind of like they have to get these last few dollars in and destroy the last few things they can. It’s fucked up.
MY: What makes me optimistic is there is so much coming onto the marketplace from the private sector that's pushing for renewables, and electric vehicles, and all these different technologies that are going to be helpful that didn't exist when I was getting started in this career.
MN: Yeah it's like 1 in 5 jobs in energy are in fossil fuels. Is that correct?
MY: That sounds about right. I'm getting solar installed in my house in the next couple of months and when I first started my career, it wasn't really something I could feasibly think about having. It just wasn't something that was so ubiquitous and the prices have just been going down so dramatically. Because of that, there's incredible demand for it.
MN: I've been buying stocks in solar and geothermal stuff because as I see it, money is the only thing they listen to.
You only get one vote in the electorate, but I feel like you get a few more votes when you use money. Lastly, how can people get involved in the work you're doing at Waterkeeper?
MY: Well there's a lot of ways. One is our whole model; the concept of our model follows the old adage, ‘think globally, act locally’ in terms of working with and helping support local leaders that are taking action in their community and then tying that together into a global movement. Get involved in your local community. That’s where you have the biggest impact. You have credibility there and stake in your local community. That's where you live, that’s where you pay taxes, that's where you vote, that's where you go to the store, that's where you go to the dry cleaners or whatever you do what you do. It's not like someone in Washington DC has any real credibility or a stake in the small town or wherever it may be. It's the people that live there that need to stand up and be leaders, and that spreads out, so get involved. Get involved with your local Waterkeeper Organization or Affiliate. We got 337 of them so we probably have one nearby and if we don’t then start one and we will help you with that process for sure. Stay engaged locally. Vote.
What we just started this past year with the election of Donald Trump is an electronic newsletter called Dive Into Democracy, which we send out every single week talking about which issues are hot right now, as in what information you need to know to call your Senator or call your Congressperson.
To go back to the question of whether to be optimistic or pessimistic. I'm optimistic by seeing how much more engaged people are now. I think people got lackadaisical or got complacent before. This time period has been so dark and dreary that hopefully, people are going to remember for a long time to not get complacent again in three years when there's a new president.
MN: After it normalizes a bit.
MY: That's a big ‘if’.
MN: The fight will still be there, these problems are not going to go anywhere
MY: People need to realize that they have to continue to be engaged and it's tiring.
MN: It's much easier to have a drink and turn off.
MN: Actually, maybe for some people not for me. I got too much anxiety.
That was fun Marc.
MY: Yeah, it was thank you I'm glad you came out.