At Croton-on-Hudson, 30 miles north of Manhattan, the Penn Central railroad maintains what is known as the Harmon Diesel and Electric Shops. Many of the engines running from New York west to Chicago are serviced here. All the oil and gunk that comes from the engines feeds into a three-foot diameter pipe that empties into the Hudson near the mouth of the tributary Croton River. Tucked away behind a bridge on Central property, the pipe is a sight few persons ever get to see, but those who have remember it vividly. The pipe bears the date 1929, and it has vomited countless thousands of gallons of oil into the Hudson over the years. The discharge has been so heavy and constant that ducks and other waterfowl have drowned, the bottom mud stinks, invertebrate life is absent and fishes and crabs that may wander into the area are deemed inedible.
I like to fish in the river, and when I found out about the pipe in 1964 I began complaining about it to county and state agencies. New York State law has for years prohibited any "deleterious or poisonous substance...to run into any waters...private or public, in quantities injurious to fish life inhabiting those waters or injurious to the propagation of fish therein," but no state agency took any action even though this foul discharge was known to them. The Interstate Sanitation Commission, which was set up in 1936 to police the waters of the Greater New York harbor area, including the Hudson up to the Bear Mountain Bridge, also did nothing. The year 1965 came. New York State authorities were all excited about a $1 billion "pure water" bond issue in which the Hudson was designated the prime target, but the oil discharges from the Central pipe continued to gush forth.
One day in September 1965 I was out in my boat on the Hudson with Dr. James Alexander of the biology department of Fordham University, and we saw oil from the pipe covering the surface of the river for several square miles. Ironically, this mess occurred at the very time that legions of state and federal officials and politicians were assembled in the Waldorf-Astoria to discuss pollution of the Hudson at a conference called by the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare.
In 1966, a new organization, the Hudson River Fishermen's Association, decided to go after polluters of the river. Research disclosed that the harbor supervision branch of the Corps of Engineers was charged with enforcing two laws that had teeth, if not fangs. The' first of these, the New York Harbor Act passed by Congress in 1888, provides that "the placing, discharging, or depositing, by any process or in any manner, of refuse, dirt, ashes, cinders, mud, sand, dredgings, sludge, acid, or any other matter of any kind," other than that flowing from streets or sewers into New York harbor, adjacent or tributary waters (such as the Hudson) or Long Island Sound, is a misdemeanor calling for a fine on each violation of from $250 to $2,500 and/or anywhere from 30 days to one year in prison. A somewhat similar law passed by Congress in 1899, the Federal Refuse Act, applies to all navigable waters of the U.S., and moreover both of these laws provide that one-half of the fine collected is "to be paid to the person or persons giving information which shall lead to conviction of this misdemeanor."
February 16, 1970
A director of the Hudson River Fishermen's Association, Arthur Glowka, an Eastern Airlines captain and outdoors writer, thought the pollution problems of the river could be licked if the general public were made aware of the rewards ordered by law, and so he designed a Bag-A-Polluter prepaid postcard. The HRFA has since distributed more than 20,000 of these cards, noting the 1888 law, to the public up and down the Hudson Valley, and all a person spotting a polluter need do is fill out a simple entry form (who, what, where and when), sign it and drop the card in the mail to the HRFA, PO Box 725, Ossining, N.Y. 10562. When a card is received, a report of the pollution is phoned to the Corps of Engineers (area code 201, HE 3-6110 and 6111), and the card goes into an HRFA file for follow-up.
From the start, the HRFA zeroed in on the Central oil pipe, reasoning that if the association could nail the railroad, a gross polluter, and collect the reward, other polluters could more easily be brought to heel. Complaints about the pipe started, and corps investigators arrived to check on them. But nothing happened. The railroad was not fined, nobody went to prison and the oil continued to gush forth.
In June 1967 I visited the corps regional headquarters in Manhattan and when I asked what happened to reported violators, an official allowed that the corps permitted "three or four violations, maybe five" to pile up before sending citations on to the U.S. Attorney for prosecution. By then I knew from hard experience that violations would only pile up if a few persistent citizens kept bulldogging a polluter. When I asked why constant polluters, such as the Central, were not promptly charged, tried, fined and sentenced, the corps bureaucrat replied, "We're dealing with top officials in industry, and you just don't go around treating these people like that."
I left thoroughly angry, but Art Glowka, attracted by a challenge, began visiting corps headquarters. Among other things, he was curious to find out about any polluters the corps had brought to book, but he was informed that all the data on polluters was stored on tape. When he suggested that retrieval of the data would answer his questions quickly—after all, that's why the Government uses computers—there was much hemming and hawing but no retrieval of data. On another occasion, after Glowka was told he could not get certain information from the corps, he showed up with a copy of the Freedom of Information Act passed by Congress. On another occasion, he had to write to the White House to get permission to inspect some documents.
Still oil continued to pour out of the pipe. The New York Daily News did a feature story on river pollution and ran a picture of the pipe. Nothing happened. The News reporter, Jesse Brodey, submitted a letter to the U.S. Attorney's office in Manhattan and sent along pictures as well. There was silence. For the hell of it, one day I called the U.S. Attorney's office and finally got on to an Assistant U.S. Attorney who was supposed to know something about the Central pipe. He was extremely nasty and said that he might very well subpoena me to appear before a federal grand jury. I was overjoyed, quickly gave him my address and phone number and said I had numerous friends who would be delighted to appear. I never heard from him again.
I called the Interior Department in Washington to complain about the oil, and I was told, "Fella, you just get in touch with the regional office of the Federal Water Pollution Control Administration and you'll see action!" The fact that the FWPCA office in charge of the Hudson was in Metuchen, N.J. gave me qualms—Laramie, Wyo. might be just as convenient a locale—but I called anyway. The official who answered the phone allowed that he sure was interested in knowing about polluters of the river. He said this in such a manner as to prompt my asking whether he would take action to end the violations. No, he said, he didn't think the FWPCA had any authority to do so, but when the Secretary of the Interior called a pollution conference on the Hudson River, like the one two years before at the Waldorf-Astoria, he, the official in Metuchen, certainly would like to be able to go to the files and pull out a list of violators.
As a result of this conversation, Richard Garrett, president of the HRFA, wrote to Representative Richard Ottinger, the local Congressman and defender of the Hudson against defilement, saying that the FWPCA was worthless and should have its appropriations cut to nothing.
A year later another official of the Metuchen, N.J. office of the FWPCA arrived in Ossining to complain to Garrett about the letter to Ottinger. Garrett, a cemetery superintendent, and a friend, Augie Berg, took the official down to look at the Central pipe. On arrival, they could smell oil 100 yards away. "Is that oil?" the official asked. To which Berg, a Sing Sing guard, replied, "It ain't perfume, buddy." They all looked at the oil coming from the pipe, and the official threw his arms into the air and yelled, "You win! You win!" Garrett asked, "What do you mean we win? The oil's coming out." The official looked at Garrett and Berg and asked, "Who are you people?" Garrett answered, "We're just people."
The official promised to have inspectors up within a week to take action, and he asked Garrett to phone him immediately about any other polluters. The inspectors never came, and even though Garrett called over a period of months, the official was never available. His secretary variously reported that he was "in conference" or "traveling." Garrett left his number each time, but the official never called back.
Of course, oil still flowed out of the Central pipe. In June 1968, Representative Ottinger, who had been getting the runaround from the corps in Washington about the oil, joined with Garrett and the HRFA, Dr. James Alexander, Dominick Pirone and myself in filing a civil suit in federal court against the Penn Central, the Secretary of the Army and the director of the Corps of Engineers for the railroad's abuse of the river. The suit was prepared by Attorney David Sive, a well-known conservationist, and Ottinger, who remarked that it was a sad day when a Congressman had to sue the Government to get the law enforced.
The filing of suit had no effect on the oil flow. In the fall of 1968, Dr. Dan Salzberg of Croton and I visited the tributary Croton River, an unpolluted stream, to fish. The Croton was coated with oil for more than a mile; tidal action had swept it in from the Central pipe. I complained to the corps, and in the spring of 1969 I complained again and again. I personally saw a two-mile-long slick coming from the pipe. Corps investigators came and went.
The HRFA decided to get its suit in court moving, and an appeal for funds went out. Offerings came from as far away as Minnesota. Motor Boating magazine had carried an account of the case, and the Garcia Corporation gave $1,000. Newspapers had run stories, and in May 1969 we invited television. NBC News came up not once but twice to shoot the pipe, and the second time we even had a corps official on hand at the site for the cameraman. The newscast showing this apparently had great impact, because we began hearing that the U.S. Attorney's office was about to intervene. The corps official on hand for the cameraman told me that all the citations that the corps had lodged against the railroad, which then numbered more than a dozen, were the results of complaints by the HRFA.
In June, state and federal officials charged with stopping pollution of the Hudson held another elaborate two-day conference on the river called by none other than the Secretary of the Interior. For the most part, it was a congress of windbags, and one of the few notes of sanity was struck by Gordon Cameron, the Croton village administrator who said that although the village board had been complaining about the Central pipe to every county, state and federal agency since the first conference in 1965, nothing had been done to stop the mess, and the village was "left with a feeling of hopelessness."
In 1969 the Corps of Engineers started sending the U.S. Attorney citations against the Penn Central. In August, a federal grand jury considered 15 citations and indicted the railroad for six violations. Anyone who had been fighting the pipe could not help but wonder why the grand jury had come up with only six instead of 15 violations in these otherwise inflationary days. But no mind, six were better than none, and at a $2,500 maximum fine per violation, the HRFA stood to collect $7,500 as a reward for reporting them. The railroad pleaded not guilty but in October changed its plea to guilty on the last four violations which ran from April to June 1969. On Nov. 14 the Penn Central was fined a total of $4,000 in federal court. Well, a $2,000 reward was at least something for the HRFA, which was going to use the money to fight some other polluters, but no money was forthcoming. Art Glowka began to investigate, because, if necessary, the HRFA plans to take legal action to get that money as a precedent. To be brief, Glowka has met with rebuffs from the officials who should see that the money is paid to the HRFA in the Penn Central case. The Assistant U.S. Attorney who prosecuted the case (a different man from the one I talked with), taunted Glowka. "What's the matter?" he asked. "Are you annoyed because you're not getting the money?" He refused comment on any questions and referred Glowka to the corps. The corps, in turn, has referred Glowka back to the Assistant U.S. Attorney or played dumb. The corps' attitude seems to be that the HRFA had nothing whatever to do with the Penn Central oil-pipe case. The only file Glowka even glimpsed at in corps headquarters in Manhattan was a folder a corps attorney had. The entry read, "Arthur Glowka." Glowka says, "So far as I can find out, no reward has ever been paid to anyone who reported a convicted polluter, and the Government doesn't want to open the gates now to the public. These guys have all been goofing off, and the only reason the river is so bad is that the laws are not enforced. People go to bed at night thinking that the Government is looking after things. Well, the Government isn't."
In the meanwhile, the Penn Central has constructed a sort of Rube Goldberg trough astride the pipe, supposedly to catch any oil before it flows into the Hudson. The HRFA has received reports that the device is inadequate, but we won't know for sure until spring when the ice is off the river. Recently, while aboard a passing commuter train—a Penn Central train that was running half an hour late—I caught a glance at the pipe, and there was an ugly discoloration on the ice. Six years have passed since I first began complaining but, judging from the mess, it seems as though President Nixon was right about one thing in his State of the Union message when he declared pollution was the challenge for the '70s.