The Eco Warriors
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Riverkeeper grew out of the dismay of fishermen, both commercial and recreational, back in the sixties, when the Hudson River was a national joke, a viscous, sludge-streaked, chemical-ridden brown sewer line running beside New York City. Under the provisions of an obscure 1888 law that awards citizens a bounty for turning in polluters, the fishermen began waging a legal war against companies that were dumping into the Hudson, shutting down the polluters and collecting half the fines. In 1983, the Hudson River Fishermen's Association, as the organization was then called, hired its first riverkeeper, a full-time investigatory with a commission to patrol for evidence of pollution. A year later, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the son of the slain U.S. senator, joined the organization, eventually becoming chief prosecuting attorney in 1993. His goal was simple: expose and prosecute, expose and prosecute. In the past two decades, Riverkeeper has used that tactic to nail more than 300 polluters, including behemoths like Exxon, General Electric, and, most recently, the city of New York, which pleaded guilty last year to negligence that had led to mercury leaking into the drinking supply.

The resurrection of the Hudson River, partly creditable to Riverkeeper's dogged fieldwork and legal campaigns, has been dramatic. Some anecdotal evidence: My next-door neighbor is a commercial fisherman on the river, which is walking distance from my door. Just the other day, he delivered to me a weighty sack of soft-shell crabs he'd pulled that morning from the Hudson, a routine kindness that not so long ago would have been unthinkable. Two decades back, a sack of Hudson River crabs on the doorstep would have carried the same message as a black rose. But today? "Today, it's the only major river system that has strong spawning stocks of its historic migratory fish," says Kennedy. Though polluters still menace it (and fish-consumption warnings still stand), the single largest threat to the river these days is from development; after decades of strenuously avoiding the Hudson, says Kennedy, "people now want to live beside it."

Unintended consequences aside, the river's turnaround has proved a durable model for environmentalists nationwide; there are currently 90 licensed "keepers" on waterways across America, with an additional 300 applications awaiting approval, according to Kennedy. "We get up every morning and fight for rivers," he says. "We'd like to see ourselves put out of business, but I don't think that's going to happen."