Helicopters help police waterways from the air
U.S. Water News Online
NEW YORK — The helicopter speeds past the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge and the Empire State Building, hovering instead above patches of green sludge near a Brooklyn canal and pools of shiny oil at a toxic creek.
The passengers excitedly strain to glimpse the slime as a cameraman shoots a barrage of photos.
This is not your average sightseeing trip. It's a twice-annual flight to view pollution from the airways for the environmental watchdog group Riverkeeper.
The goal of the trips is to amass evidence of pollution that Riverkeeper and other groups use to file lawsuits against violators. In many cases, the helicopter is their only option because companies don't allow access to their waterfront sites.
Riverkeeper also captains a boat that is out on the water 10 months of the year trolling for pollution, but it cannot always catch the sludge and slicks that are visible from the air.
"The aerial perspective provides an invaluable opportunity to detect subtle changes in the landscape and water quality and illegal activities behind fences that are often undetectable from ground level," said Basil Seggos, Riverkeeper's chief investigator and director of its Hudson River program.
Riverkeeper has been policing the Hudson for more than 35 years, and has several lawsuits pending against industrial companies that have polluted the river. The group is also responsible for monitoring area waterways that eventually feed into the Hudson, like the Gowanus Canal.
The men on the helicopter know the Hudson like it's their backyard. James Lipscomb, who captains the Riverkeeper boat, feels fiercely responsible for the river, and it shows. He's agitated by any site of pollution, whether it's a plankton boom of sludgy green from sewage in the Gowanus, or a handful of plastic cups tossed onto the Hudson riverbank upstream, where hunters often booze.
From above, the city looks a little like a dirty version of Venice, with stretches of water weaving through small junkyards and industrial sites. North of the city, it's like another world, silent and wide as the river winds through parkland and less populated parts of the state.
"There's still a large amount of life in the water, even after all the things man has done to it," Lipscomb says. "From above here, it really gives you a glimpse of what an Eden this must have been years ago."
Seggos is seated in the front with pilot James McVey, talking him through locations and directing where to head next. The photographer, Giles Ashford, in back, is stretching his camera out the windows to shoot as much as possible and Lipscomb is explaining various ecological issues and sprawl problems along the water.
The group has to check out the sites of a few current lawsuits, like one against Exxon Mobil for a massive underground oil spill in Brooklyn, as well as possible polluters that Lipscomb has noticed from his boat. Along the way, they hunt for any new instances of water pollution.
"Private property really prevents you from seeing what you need to see in terms of what industry is doing to the water," Seggos said.
The 1,500 photos taken by Ashford during the trip will be used for investigations as well as possible evidence in some of the legal action. He clicks away above two large trenches where pools of oil shimmered in the sunlight on the Exxon Mobil property in Brooklyn.
Two lawsuits, by New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo and Riverkeeper, accuse Exxon of taking too long to clean up oil spilled decades ago from now-defunct refineries in Brooklyn's Greenpoint section.
The company accepted responsibility for much of the spill in 1990 and constructed a pumping system that, along with pumps operated by other companies, has gradually removed 9.3 million gallons of the subterranean slick. Exxon has maintained for years that it is committed to the cleanup but that the delicate nature of the oil recovery operation makes it difficult to extract the pollution any faster.
As the chopper pushes north along the Hudson, and past Albany to the General Electric plant and a paper mill on Glens Falls, they note the changes in river that are impossible to see with an untrained eye.
"See that little plume there? That's pollution. But over there, that's just sediment rising," Lipscomb explains.
Riverkeeper can't possibly police every pollutant found along the 300-mile long river, but the group says it monitors smaller problems so they don't mushroom into larger issues.
After some tours, Riverkeepr acts immediately on new findings. For example, on their last ride, Seggos and the others noticed a barge leaking fuel, and the oily slick was visible about a mile downstream. So they notified the state Department of Environmental Conservation, which discovered the leak and ordered the company to do cleanup work.
The DEC said the watchdog group is an integral part of its enforcement work on the river.
"They provide us with important information that we are able to pursue and investigate whether violations are committed," said DEC spokeswoman Maureen Wren.
The state doesn't pursue every report Riverkeeper provides. Sometimes, DEC officials follow up on a report and find everything is in order and there's no need to continue investigations, Wren said. Other times, the instances are already known to the DEC and they are working with companies to fix the problem.
On this ride, though, the Riverkeeper crew decides Lipscomb must return in the boat to the site of two suspicious industrial facilities in the middle Hudson to take water-quality samples before any legal action is instigated.
Click here to subscribe to e-Water News Weekly!