When the Clean Water Act is applied to American waterways, good things can happen. Our recent report, Waterways Restored: The Clean Water Act's Impact on 15 American Rivers, Lakes and Bays, highlights waterways where the Clean Water Act's protections and improvement provisions have had positive effects. Polluted waterways have been cleaned up, pristine waterways have been preserved, and threatened waterways have been protected. All waterways deserve these opportunities.
In this blog series, we'll showcase individual case studies from the report. The second installment is New York's Hudson River.
Thanks to the Clean Water Act, the Hudson River is now safe for swimming and boating events like the Great Hudson River Paddle, pictured here. Photo by Hudson River Valley Greenway.
For decades before the Clean Water Act, much of the Hudson River was heavily polluted on a daily basis with industrial runoff and wastewater discharge. The Clean Water Act led to a dramatic reversal, sparking industrial cleanup and huge investment in sewage system upgrades.
The Hudson River begins in northeastern New York, and flows south, past Albany and into the Atlantic at New York City. For most of the 20th century, it was known as a dirty river. Legend had it that the water was so toxic that sailors used it to kill parasites on the bottoms of their boats. The folk singer Pete Seeger, who led activism to clean the river, wrote a song about the Hudson called “Sailing Up My Dirty Stream,” with the line “five million gallons of waste a day, why should we do it any other way?”[i]
The Act’s passage in 1972 ultimately led to significant progress against two of the Hudson’s most damaging sources of pollution: industrial plants, which dumped waste into the river, and municipalities, which released untreated sewage.
Industrial pollution had a terrible impact on the river, with dozens of factories discharging into its waters.[ii] Residents downstream from the General Motors site in Sleepy Hollow would “know what color they were painting the cars that day because of the discharge of polluted waste water,” according to a recollection in a newspaper story marking the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act.[iii] The Anaconda Wire and Cable Company in Hastings-on-Hudson dumped chemicals and metal filings straight into the river. [iv]
The passage of the Clean Water Act helped ordinary citizens to hold these polluting industries accountable. Local fishermen on the Hudson had, in previous years, sought legal and regulatory restrictions on industrial polluters.[v] The Clean Water Act gave them a new and stronger way to pursue those goals. In 1972, the Hudson River Fishermen’s Association launched the country’s first “riverkeeper” effort, appointing a person to travel up and down the river documenting cases of suspected Clean Water Act violations and handing evidence over to the EPA.[vi] In one early instance, a riverkeeper sailing on Pete Seeger’s boat Clearwater investigated pollution from an adhesive tape manufacturing company. As a result of the evidence collected, the company was found guilty of 12 violations of the Clean Water Act.[vii]
According to Phillip Musegaas, Hudson River Program Director for the fishermen’s group that later renamed itself Riverkeeper, “the passage of the Clean Water Act, with its seminal citizen enforcement provision, allowed us to . . . [bring] Clean Water Act enforcement actions against polluters in federal court, often resulting in the cessation of pollution and improved protection of the Hudson.”[viii] In the years following the passage of the Clean Water Act, through litigation or its threat, many polluters of the Hudson gradually reduced their pollution.[ix]
The Act also forced the cleanup of sewage pollution in the Hudson. Sewage had devastated the Hudson River and its wildlife all along the course of the river. By the late 1960s, bacteria levels in the Hudson River were 170 times above the safe limit.[x]
"The river from Troy to the south of Albany is one septic tank that has been rendered nearly useless for water supply, for swimming, or to support the rich fish life that once abounded there," said Nelson A. Rockefeller, governor of New York in 1965.[xi] The sewage waste released from Troy and Albany caused a severe reduction in dissolved oxygen levels and wiped out almost all fish for nearly 24 miles downstream.[xii] A 1970 study of fish in the area found them "swimming slowly at the surface, gulping air, and disturbing an oil film which covered the water surface."[xiii]
Pollution downstream, near Manhattan, was nearly as bad, with New York City discharging 170 million gallons of raw sewage into the Hudson every day (and 450 million gallons per day into all of the city’s surrounding waters).[xiv]
Clean Water Act requirements and funding for the abatement of sewage discharge dramatically improved the health of the Hudson. Treatment plants opened in Albany and Troy in 1975 and 1976, respectively. Within just two years, many species of fish could once again be found as far north as Troy.[xv]
Delays in construction of wastewater treatment in New York City meant its sewage pollution continued for longer.[xvi] Upgrades in 1986 led to the elimination of New York’s daily discharge of raw sewage into the Hudson River for the first time in its history.[xvii] By 1994, all but one of New York City’s 14 water pollution control plants had been upgraded to full secondary treatment, now treating more than 99.9 percent of the city’s dry weather sewage for several contaminants (although rain still causes overflows).[xviii]
The Hudson is not home free. Today, much of the river is a Superfund site, due to the residue from the use of PCBs, a class of toxic chemical, at General Electric’s Hudson equipment manufacturing plant. Four power plants discharge huge quantities of heated water into the Hudson, harming wildlife. And battles over pollution continue – one recent citizen suit resulted in the energy company Entergy paying $1.2 million for Clean Water Act violations following a release of petroleum.[xix]
Nevertheless, the Hudson is now dramatically cleaner than it once was. Dissolved oxygen levels in the river near Albany and Troy are five times higher than they used to be.[xx] Measurements of fecal bacteria in the Hudson River have declined significantly.[xxi] The cleaner Hudson has led to the return of fish and wildlife.[xxii] New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation now says that, after years of dangerously high levels of sewage and other pollutants, swimming in the river is generally safe.[xxiii]
[i] Suzanne Goldenberg, “Pete Seeger's greatest legacy? Saving New York's Hudson river,” The Guardian, 29 January 2014.
[ii] Drew Thilmany and Tom Weidlinger, Lillian Lincoln Foundation, Swim For The River Study Guide, 2006.
[iii] Jes Siart, “Hudson River Shines 40 Years After Clean Water Act,” Rivertowns Daily Voice, 17 October 2012.
[iv] See note ii.
[v] Riverkeeper, Riverkeeper Timeline, accessed at www.riverkeeper.org/about-us/our-story/riverkeeper-timeline, 11 September 2014.
[vii] Susan Reed, “Polluters, Beware! Riverkeeper John Cronin Patrols the Hudson and Pursues Those Who Foul Its Waters,” People Magazine, 2 July 1990
[viii] Hudson River Environmental Society, Clean Water Act At 40 Speaker Abstracts, 7 May 2012, available at www.hres.org/joomla/images/stories/Conferences/2012.05.03.speaker.abstracts..pdf.
[x] James Salzman, “Why Rivers No Longer Burn,” Slate, 10 December 2012.
[xi] Mark S.R. Suchecki, “Turning The Tide, Hudson Cleaning Up Its Act,” Times Union, 30 November 1986.
[xii] Robert E. Henshaw, Environmental History of the Hudson River: Human Uses that Changed the Ecology, Ecology that Changed the Human Uses, (Albany: SUNY Press, 2011), xxv.
[xiii] See note ix.
[xiv] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Progress in Water Quality: An Evaluation of the National Investment in Municipal Wastewater Treatment, June 2000.
[xv] See note xii.
[xvi] Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, A Synopsis of New York City’s Sewage Treatment, accessed at www.caryinstitute.org/sites/default/files/public/downloads/curriculum-project/4C2_history_wastewater_reading.pdf, 9 September 2014.
[xvii] City of New York, North River Wastewater Treatment Plant, accessed at www.nyc.gov/html/dep/html/wastewater/northri.shtml, 9 September 2014.
[xviii] See note xiv.
[xix] New York State Department. of Environmental Conservation, DEC: Entergy to Pay $1.2 Million Penalty for Petroleum Spill in Hudson River after Fire at Indian Point Nuclear Facility (press release), 26 March 2012, available at www.dec.ny.gov/press/81164.html.
[xx] See note xi.
[xxi] See note xiv.
[xxiii] See note ix.