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Riverkeeper’s captain keeps watch on the water

By Tim Lamorte
TIM LAMORTE/RIVERTOWNS ENTERPRISE

John Lipscomb pilots the R. Ian Fletcher off Tarrytown on May 3.

 

REGION — In the wake of his recent talk at the Irvington Public Library, John Lipscomb recalled his childhood, including the time he lived at Woodbrook Gardens on North Broadway in Irvington. To Lipscomb, whose family relocated to Irvington from the Bronx, the stream that flows through that apartment complex felt like a vast wilderness.

“For little kids, 50 feet of streambed is like a national park in scale,” he said.

Lipscomb and his family moved from Irvington to Tarrytown as he entered grade school. Today, the 62-year-old resides in Nyack. He has lived and worked along the Hudson River for much of his life. For the last 16 years, he has been the patrol boat captain for Riverkeeper, the nonprofit watchdog organization dedicated to protecting the Hudson.

Riverkeeper’s predecessor, the Hudson River Fishermen’s Association, was founded 50 years ago. To mark that anniversary, Lipscomb was invited to speak at the library on May 2. Retired television meteorologist Storm Field, a resident of Irvington, moderated the event. Field prompted Lipscomb with questions, and then fielded more from the attendees who filled the library’s Martucci Gallery.

For an hour and a half, Lipscomb touched on Riverkeeper’s assorted causes, including water quality, the construction of the new Tappan Zee Bridge, ongoing problems at the Indian Point nuclear power plant, and the transportation of Bakken crude oil through the Hudson River Valley.

“A lot of people think the river is better now because they don’t see the pollution,” he said, referring to the “open sewer” period of the 1960s, when industries flushed visible chemicals into the river. As the Hudson continues to recover from that era, Riverkeeper contends with other problems, such as fecal contamination.

“As the traditional sources of pollution have been eliminated somewhat over time, during that time we’ve also lost the abundance in the river,” Lipscomb said. He cited the sharp decline in the Hudson’s shad and sturgeon populations, due to pollution and commercial fishing.

The following afternoon, Lipscomb was behind the wheel of the R. Ian Fletcher, the 36-foot wooden boat that Riverkeeper acquired in 1990, then christened in 1998 in honor of a scientist who worked with Riverkeeper. Built in 1983 in Bivalve, N.J., off the Delaware Bay, the Fletcher had been refurbished in Maryland this past winter, and returned to the Hudson on April 11. Two days later, the lights on the Empire State Building shined blue and green in honor of Riverkeeper’s anniversary.

The Fletcher, originally constructed to patrol commercial oyster beds, now houses a water-testing laboratory. Lipscomb logs between 4,000 and 5,000 miles per year aboard the vessel, traveling a 155-mile stretch of the Hudson and, starting in 2014, a 120-mile section of the Mohawk River, which empties into the Hudson north of Albany.

Last Tuesday, the Fletcher carried seven future lawyers enrolled in Pace University’s Environmental Litigation Clinic, a two-semester course through which students represent Riverkeeper in court under the direction of Karl Coplan, who accompanied them that afternoon, and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Riverkeeper’s chief prosecuting attorney. The title of “riverkeeper” belongs to the organization’s president, Paul Gallay.

The students were shown the new bridge under construction and a sewage pipe in Piermont. Lipscomb picked them up and dropped them off at the Tarrytown Marina, where Riverkeeper tests the water for enterococcus, a fecal contamination indicator. On Oct. 12, 2015, the enterococcus count was 4,884 (between 0-60 is considered acceptable). Lipscomb blames that high number on a sewage bypass pipe that empties into a brook that flows into the marina.

After the students disembarked, Lipscomb headed north. To the south, work on the new bridge had halted due to rain. Last December, the Pace Environmental Litigation Clinic filed a notice of intent to sue the New York State Thruway Authority, which oversees the project, and Tappan Zee Constructors, the contractor, claiming that construction had caused an increase in deaths of the endangered sturgeon. Based on state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) records, the number of reported sturgeon deaths rose from eight in 2012, when construction started, to 25 in 2013, 43 in 2014, and 46 in 2015.

Earlier this year, the DEC issued a press release titled “Atlantic Sturgeon Show Encouraging Signs for Population Recovery.” Based on a federal and state survey, DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos stated that “Juvenile Atlantic sturgeon are at the highest level recorded in the Hudson River in the last 10 years.” The DEC attributed the rise in reported sturgeon deaths to an increase in awareness and an increase in the abundance of the fish, not to the bridge construction.

In response, Lipscomb told the Enterprise, “The juvenile numbers don’t support the implied assumption that there are more adults. The study didn’t study adults. It’s almost an irrelevant argument.” Riverkeeper is negotiating with the Thruway Authority and Tappan Zee Constructors in an effort to avoid litigation.

Win or lose, Riverkeeper and its boat captain relish their role as a vigilant presence on the Hudson. Lipscomb compares his patrols to a police officer in a squad car. He prefers a slow pace, close to the shoreline. “I want to be looking. I also want to be seen looking,” he said as he drove home last Tuesday from Ossining, after docking the Fletcher within walking distance of Riverkeeper’s headquarters.

Lipscomb also recounted a situation involving Metro-North a few years ago. As he cruised passed Hastings, he noticed fresh stone in a stream underneath a railroad bridge that was being worked on by a contractor. He contacted a Metro-North official because “streams should be sacred,” as he explained last week. By the time he passed that bridge again, later the same day, the stone had been removed.

About a year later, that same Metro-North official alerted Lipscomb about three upcoming projects. “She said, ‘We know you’ll be watching and we want you to know who to talk to if you see any problems,’” he recalled. To Lipscomb, her outreach affirmed Riverkeeper’s mission. “That is exactly why we patrol,” he said.


Read more local coverage of your hometown in this week’s issue of the Rivertowns Enterprise. Newsstand copies are available at several locations listed above, or subscribe today for convenient home delivery.


 

May 13, 2016

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