Polluters, Beware! Riverkeeper John Cronin Patrols the Hudson and Pursues Those Who Foul Its Waters

updated 07/02/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/02/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

John Cronin pushes his 25-foot boat Riverkeeper away from the banks of the Hudson River and opens the throttle across the choppy waters of Croton Bay, 40 miles upstream from New York City. Dressed in faded red shorts and sneakers, Cronin spins the wheel and points the boat toward the Croton-Harmon railroad yard. He wants to check to make sure that the Metro-North Commuter Railroad is not emptying waste oil into the Hudson through a discharge pipe. "Metro-North is a chronic violator," says Cronin as he navigates the river's tricky currents. "But I'm nothing if not tenacious. Once I sink my teeth into a polluter's ankle, I don't let go."

For John Cronin, ankle-biting is all in a day's work as the Hudson riverkeeper, a privately funded environmental watchdog who has helped restore one of America's most majestic waterways to health. In the mid-1960s, the 315-mile-long river had become a polluted sewer. Today, due in part to the intervention of Cronin and his employer, the Hudson Riverkeeper Fund, the river's rich ecosystem is making a comeback. Sturgeon have returned to its waters, as have shad, herring, eel and blue crabs. Striped bass are once again flourishing (although they are inedible, due to contamination by polychlorinated biphenyls—PCBs—suspected carcinogens that were dumped into the river by General Electric for 30 years).

Protecting the Hudson calls for Cronin to be equal parts detective, scientist and public advocate. "One aspect of my job is to be intimate with the Hudson," says Cronin, 39. By knowing the river's banks, currents and fish, he is better able to identify suspicious activities—landfills releasing chemical runoff, companies discharging waste and municipalities exceeding their sewage limits. Cronin spends a quarter of his time on the boat, testing water samples and collecting fish. He has been known to anchor and crawl through huge pipes looking for evidence of midnight dumping. Says John Adams, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council: "John's work symbolizes one citizen's courageousness to take on big symbolic issues."

Cronin's effectiveness—and his rugged good looks—have made him a reluctant environmental star. Camera crews follow him up and down the river. He is the subject of a recently published children's book called Riverkeeper, and Warner Bros. plans to make a movie based on his life. "John is the paradigm of the vigorous, sophisticated, aggressive Hudson River environmentalist," says Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the Riverkeeper Fund's full-time attorney. "The reason we have been able to save the river is that we've used public relations, politics and the court. John knows how to work them all."

With Cronin as their point man, Hudson River environmentalists have racked up some impressive statistics. Since 1983 they have been successfully involved in 40 enforcement cases and lawsuits against Hudson abusers. Cronin's biggest victory was the result of a David-and-Goliath-type battle that he waged against Exxon.

Cronin had just started working as riverkeeper back in 1983 when a state trooper advised him that oil tankers were coming up the Hudson, anchoring off Hyde Park and rinsing their holds in the river. Cronin began watching them. "I became obsessed," he recalls. "I would put up in the shallows between Roger's Point and Krum Elbow in the dark and listen to the conversations of the captains on the radio." The captains were discussing flushing their tanks of jet fuel residue and loading them with fresh Hudson River water to take to Exxon's refinery in Aruba. Cronin collected water samples, then painstakingly constructed the case: Over a two-year period, 177 Exxon tankers flushed their tanks and removed clean water from the Hudson. Confronted with the evidence, Exxon settled the case out of court in 1984, paying $250,000 to the fledgling Hudson Riverkeeper Fund and $1.5 million to New York State to help improve the river.

Not surprisingly, Cronin has made himself plenty of enemies. "He is a brash young individual who is obsessed with his own importance," fumes Robert J. Kirkpatrick, former Town Supervisor of New-burgh, N.Y., which Kennedy prosecuted in 1986 for midnight dumping of alum sludge into a Hudson tributary. Says Kirkpatrick: "Cronin makes headlines at the expense of government leaders and small communities." John couldn't agree more. "Exxon says we pick on them because they're a big target. Newburgh says that we pick on them because they're a small town. The truth is we pick on everybody. Our job is to say, 'Stop.' "

Cronin grew up in Yonkers, N.Y., just downriver from Garrison, where he lives now. His father worked for Otis Elevator Company, and his mother was a medical technician. "The Hudson was something you stayed away from then," says John. "My main interest as a kid was the New York Yankees." A restless young man, Cronin studied modern dance in college and then headed west, washing dishes in Phoenix and bagging groceries in Boulder, Colo., before ending up back in New Paltz, N.Y., painting houses.

One day in 1972, Cronin heard that Pete Seeger's sloop Clearwater would be sailing into nearby Beacon. Cronin signed on with Seeger and went to work on the Clearwater Pipewatch project, investigating a company that manufactured adhesive tape. As a result of evidence collected by Clearwater sleuths, the company was convicted of 12 violations of the 1972 Clean Water Act. "I was a convert," says John. "I wasn't a scientist. I wasn't a lawyer. As just an average, everyday citizen, I was able to get a polluter charged."

Cronin tried his hand at another form of environmental advocacy. As a legislative aide, he worked for the New York State Assembly Committee on Environmental Conservation. But fed up with office life, he handed in his resignation, closed up his apartment, and drove to Nyack to see his friend, commercial fisherman Bob Gabrielson. Gabrielson gave him a set of foul weather gear and taught him to fish, read the tides and handle nets. "The river went from being something I acknowledged to something I understood," says Cronin.

When local Hudson Valley activist and writer Robert H. Boyle approached Cronin with the idea of being a Hudson riverkeeper, he was ready. Boyle, president of the Hudson River Fisherman's Association, had read about English riverkeepers who looked after private trout streams and protected them against poachers. Boyle decided that the Hudson could use such a guardian, the difference being that the Hudson riverkeeper would pursue polluters, not poachers.

Happily, the once-divorced Cronin (who has a 14-year-old daughter, Sasha) has found not just culprits but companionship on the river as well. This fall he will marry Constance Hough, 37, an administrative assistant to Kennedy. "She's intelligent, funny and has an indomitable spirit," says Cronin. "We laugh a lot." The couple plans to live in Cronin's modest riverfront bungalow.

Off Garrison, Cronin cuts Riverkeeper's engines and drifts slowly. He is wary when it comes to discussing the Hudson's improving health. "In some ways I'm fearful that the greedy and selfish will feel more relaxed about plundering it again," he says. "The question we have to keep asking isn't whether the Hudson has improved, but whether it's going to continue to improve." To illustrate the point, Cronin heads downriver toward New York City, which dumps thousands of pounds of toxic metals into the lower Hudson and adjoining waters every day.

"I wasn't born with much, but I was born with more than I realized," says Cronin. "I probably won't own anything larger in my whole life than my piece of the public trust. And I am not going to be played the fool by the Exxons or some small factory that is abusing my holding. The law says the Hudson River belongs to me. It belongs to everybody."

—Susan Reed, Harriet Shapiro on the Hudson

From Our Partners