September 12, 2004
Captain Bill--Riverkeeper enforces laws; fulfills life's mission
By Rick Grossman
Imagine turning on your television and seeing an environmentalist kayaking down a river surrounded by two oil tankers. Captain Bill Sheehan, the Hackensack Riverkeeper, turned to this television program one day and it changed his life forever.
Sheehan serves as both the Hackensack Riverkeeper and executive director of Hackensack Riverkeeper, Inc., a local branch of a national privately funded non-profit environmental organization.
Sheehan said, "[M]y life's work is to protect, preserve and restore this river. Now I have another mission as part of my life's work. And that's to protect, preserve and develop the Riverkeeper organization. And I take that part of my job very seriously."
The Hackensack Riverkeeper organization was founded in 1997 and is now a major force in the Meadowlands political world. The Riverkeeper organization itself was founded in 1983 to protect the Hudson River and monitor pollution.
"[The local] organization, since 1997, has gone from...one guy with an old boat, who did all of his work as a volunteer...to an organization that now has five full-time paid employees. All of [them] are devoting their lives, not only their work ethic, to the mission of the organization. My crew that works for me, they put in long hours and they multi-task every day of their lives."
Sheehan added, "They realize that this is more than just a job; it's a mission. And it's something that needs tending to on a regular basis."
Give a man a fish...
As a child, Sheehan was a Boy Scout when he first learned about conservation issues.
By the time Sheehan was in his late 30s and early 40s, he started fishing and reading up about the politics involved with fishing. He even started attending meetings so he could learn how the process moved forward.
Then, one day, as Sheehan was watching an ESPN Outdoors television show about fishing and hunting, he saw that video segment where the San Francisco Bay Riverkeeper kayaked down a river between two oil tankers. It was that very moment that it all clicked for Sheehan. He wanted to become a Riverkeeper.
He started his conservation efforts by volunteering for the New York/New Jersey Baykeeper organization.
There were 17 Riverkeepers in America at the time Sheehan applied to become the Hackensack Riverkeeper. In June of 1997, he received a letter from Robert Kennedy, Jr., the prosecuting attorney for the organization, welcoming him aboard.
Sheehan said, "[T]hat was a moment in my life where my life changed irrevocably because now I was allowed to, by use of the word 'Riverkeeper', which is a registered trademark, form an organization called the Hackensack Riverkeeper and become the riverkeeper for this entire watershed."
He built the foundation of the Riverkeeper, including a board of trustees, advisory panel and a board of directors, on his first official day on the job.
In addition to now having five full-time members and many volunteers, the program also has an AmeriCorps watershed ambassador who performs watershed public education for one year.
The Hackensack Riverkeeper obtains funding from several sources. It received foundation grants from national foundations such as Victoria Foundation and the Schumann Fund of New Jersey. It also receives donations from people and companies categorized as a business partnership, such as Shop Rite Supermarket, PSE&G, and a number of mom-and-pop stores.
The organization also receives donations from its supporter base, which attends the events the organizations runs throughout the year. Every now and then attorney general's office crafts settlements agreements with polluting parties, ensuring that some money is applied to the Hackensack Riverkeeper organization.
Enforcing the law
Law enforcement is an important aspect of the Riverkeeper organization.
Sheehan said, "We want to clean up the river, and these people are standing between our goal of a clean river...We'll see to it that whatever level of enforcement applies, gets brought."
He remembers a high-profile case in which the organization caught a local cement factory polluting the river and assisted with law enforcement, ultimately forcing the business to comply with local laws and regulations.
He said, "You know, a few years ago we caught them polluting the river. We found out through informers that the pollution that they were doing was not only polluting the river, but it was also a violation, a criminal violation of a consent order that they had signed. At that point, we brought in the Attorney General's Office, Division of Criminal Justice, and they wound up bringing criminal charges against the company's president, against the manager, and the corporation."
He added, "[S]ince then, [the company] has cleaned up their act, you know. Nothing turns a polluter into an environmentalist faster than the potential of actually going to jail."
The Hackensack Riverkeeper organization also brings citizen suits against polluters, with the help of Rutgers Law School. These suits are usually filed in areas where the government has failed to make a strong impact.
"These are some of the older polluted sites in the region where the state has been pretty lax in their enforcement," said Sheehan. "The federal government hasn't been doing much, and that allows us the opportunity to step in as citizens and form coalitions with other environmental organizations, and with the assistance of our attorneys down at Rutgers Environmental Law Clinic in Newark. We bring what's known as citizen actions against these polluters."
Sheehan also has a very close relationship with the Northern Compliance Office of the Department of Environmental Protection. Sheehan works closely with John Zuzeck, an Environmental Specialist.
"All I have to do is pick up the phone and tell him 'John, I got a report that something is going bad' and he's on it. He doesn't hesitate. He goes right out into the field."
Sheehan is proud to be a part of this Waterways Enforcement team. It was created in 2002 with the help of Lisa Jackson, assistant commissioner of enforcement. The team consists of enforcement officials from different disciplines. Sheehan calls Zuzeck and informs him when there may be a job for the team.
Zuzeck then assembles the team and they all arrive simultaneously. "Whatever notices of violations need to be written, get written simultaneously and then that shuts down the operation," said Sheehan.
In addition to its law enforcement efforts, the Riverkeeper is probably more well-known within the community for its community programs.
Sheehan said, "The other stuff I am involved in, though, is more community-based. We do lots of public education using boats. We take people out on the water. We let them see the habitat. We let them experience the wildlife, talk to them about the history of the river. We talk to them about today's political reality of the river, and we also talk about what the vision is, what the shared vision is now for the future of the Meadowlands and the future of the watershed."
The organization runs eco-tours, eco-cruises, river clean-ups and canoe and kayak tours.
Information about these programs can be accessed online at www.hackensackriverkeeper.org.
The next river clean-up was planned for Saturday, Sept. 11 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Laurel Hill County Park in Secaucus. Volunteers can also sign up for cleanups at Staib Park in Hackensack on Sept. 25 and the boat launch at Kenneth B. George Park in River Edge on Oct. 2. Volunteers should contact Kathy Urffer at email@example.com or at (201) 968-0808.
ŠThe Hudson Reporter 2004