Peter Dykstra: Saviors of the Hudson
Pete Seeger (Credit: Clearwater.org)

Peter Dykstra: Saviors of the Hudson

"America's first river" is a long way from total salvation, but 50 years ago, two men stepped up to rescue it.

On April 1, 1969, a garrulous sportswriter released a book about his true passion. A month later, a smiling folksinger launched a refurbished boat – his true passion.


Robert Boyle and Pete Seeger never saw eye-to-eye on many of the details, but both men played key roles in launching one of America's most storied conservation efforts.

Boyle, who penned many classic Sports Illustrated stories since the magazine's first year in 1954, was an avid fly fisherman who wrote The Hudson River: A Natural and Unnatural History. Seeger, blacklisted during the McCarthy era and arguably the most unlikely member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, launched the Clearwater, a Hudson River sloop that became an icon of conservation and activism.

In the unusual venue of SI, Bob Boyle wrote about his beloved river, and was among the first to cover the Northeast's acid rain epidemic. His stories on widespread PCB contamination in the Hudson from two General Electric factories far upstream helped spur a billion-dollar cleanup, and the eventual ban on PCB's in the 1970's. Thus, a magazine known for covering football, golf, boxing and swimsuits became an environmental leader.

In the mid-60s, Boyle got involved in opposing the Storm King project. Con Edison, New York City's utility, planned to hollow out Storm King Mountain, 60 miles north of the city, to build a pump storage power facility.

Environmentalists triumphed in a lengthy court battle, and Con Ed abandoned the project in what is considered an early landmark in environmental law.

The compulsively genial Pete Seeger helped build an organization that captured the imagination of millions who lived in the Hudson watershed. The Clearwater sailed the mighty river from Albany to the Statue of Liberty, giving kids and adults what was often their first exposure to environmental values.

Two of the early Clearwater crewmembers went on to skipper their own eco-boats: Peter Willcox was captain of the Greenpeace flagship, Rainbow Warrior, for years; and John Cronin became the first Hudson Riverkeeper.

Cronin dogged factories, railroad yards, municipal sewer systems, and other polluters for years, scoring impressive successes with the help of Boyle and environmental attorney Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.

Bob Boyle (credit: lohud.com)

He sleuthed a fleet of Exxon tankers as they sailed well up the river, past their terminals and refineries for no apparent reason. It turns out the tankers were using clean Hudson water to clean their tanks and fill their ballast with fresh water for Exxon's refinery in Aruba. Cronin and Kennedy won a $1.75 million judgement against Exxon. What began in the Hudson has gone international: RFK Jr. founded the Waterkeeper Alliance in 1999, and today there are hundreds of River-, Bay-, and Lake-keepers from Labrador to Vietnam.

Today, the Hudson is far from pristine, and the Trump Administration is far from helpful. In April, EPA issued a certificate of completion to GE for its Upper Hudson cleanup, all while admitting that PCB risks remain. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has vowed to sue the federal agency to force further action.

I did a documentary on the Riverkeeper and the Hudson's recovery in 1997. I saw impressive results achieved by groups that don't always play nicely with each other, and heard a little squabbling over relatively minor differences in policy, and who gets credit for a cleaner Hudson (a manifestation of cleanness envy?).

Boyle was generous with me with his time and stories; Seeger was equally generous with his stories and music. But both men politely declined to appear together.

A third group, Scenic Hudson, was founded by some well-heeled river lovers in 1963. They all deserve credit, and stand as a lesson that some battles take years, but they can be won, and are eminently worth winning.

Pete Seeger died in 2014. May 3 would have been his 100th birthday. Bob Boyle died in 2017. Thanks to them, and the many who carry on their work.

LNG gulf coast
Leo Dyson, a retired commercial fisherman. (Credit: Courtney O'Banion for the Louisiana Bucket Brigade)

LNG production comes with a price, Gulf Coast communities warn

US takes the global lead on liquid natural gas production and export, as economic promises and environmental worries collide.

This 2-part series was co-produced by Environmental Health News and the journalism non-profit Economic Hardship Reporting Project. See part 2 here.Este ensayo también está disponible en español
Keep reading...Show less
Senator Whitehouse & climate change

Senator Whitehouse puts climate change on budget committee’s agenda

For more than a decade, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse gave daily warnings about the mounting threat of climate change. Now he has a powerful new perch.
Amid LNG’s Gulf Coast expansion, community hopes to stand in its way
Coast Guard inspects Cameron LNG Facility in preparation for first LNG export in 2019. (Credit: Coast Guard News)

Amid LNG’s Gulf Coast expansion, community hopes to stand in its way

This 2-part series was co-produced by Environmental Health News and the journalism non-profit Economic Hardship Reporting Project. See part 1 here.Este ensayo también está disponible en español
Keep reading...Show less
Plastics industry's recycling deception
Credit: MPCA Photos/Flickr

Plastics industry's recycling deception exposed

A new report uncovers decades of misleading claims by plastic producers about the viability of recycling, revealing it as a flawed solution for waste management.

Dharna Noor reports for The Guardian.

Keep reading...Show less
highway expansion climate concerns
Credit: Storm Crypt/Flickr

Rethinking highway expansion in the face of climate concerns

As the U.S. grapples with climate change, activists are challenging the traditional expansion of highways, highlighting the environmental and community impacts.

Shannon Osaka reports for The Washington Post.

Keep reading...Show less

Youth activists demand climate action at Biden's campaign headquarters

Young climate activists from the Sunrise Movement confront Biden's campaign team, demanding decisive climate action and a ceasefire in Gaza.

Keerti Gopal for Inside Climate News.

Keep reading...Show less
Plastics industry misinformation campaign
Credit: Louis Vest/Flickr

Plastics and education: a critical conversation unfolds in schools

Petrochemical conglomerates take to the classroom in a concerted effort to focus responsibility for plastic waste on the consumer while absolving industry.

Evan Halper reports for The Washington Post.

Keep reading...Show less

Rally for safer work conditions in Queensland

In Brisbane, thousands of construction workers demand improved safety measures following a colleague's tragic death.

Michael Rennie and Antonia O'Flaherty report for ABC News.

Keep reading...Show less
From our Newsroom
petrochemical shell pennsylvania plastic

Tracking petrochemical accidents across the US

A new database monitors fires, flares, spills and other accidents at petrochemical plants.

petrochemical houston gulf coast

Lives “devastated’ by petrochemical industry pollution in Texas: Report

New analysis illustrates the climate, environmental, and human rights tolls linked to petrochemical production surrounding the Houston Ship Channel region.

LNG gulf coast

La producción de gas natural licuado tiene un precio, advierten las comunidades la Costa del Golfo

Entre promesas económicas y preocupaciones ambientales, Estados Unidos lidera la producción y exportación de gas natural licuado.

Ante la expansión del GNL en la costa del Golfo, la comunidad espera erigirse como un muro de contención

Ante la expansión del GNL en la costa del Golfo, la comunidad espera erigirse como un muro de contención

“La gente no sabe qué haríamos sin el petróleo y el gas. Esto nos sale muy caro”.

extreme heat

Op-ed: We are undercounting heat-related deaths in the US

Knowing how many people die or get sick from heat-related causes is essential for the policy arguments to equitably adapt to and mitigate climate change.

environmental justice

LISTEN: Idalmis Vaquero on turning community priorities into policies

“I wanted to find a way to connect the things I was learning in my classroom with the things I was seeing in my community.”

Stay informed: sign up for The Daily Climate newsletter
Top news on climate impacts, solutions, politics, drivers. Delivered to your inbox week days.