Old Man River

Sporting a faded blue sweater, worn jeans, and scuffed white tennis shoes,
Peter Davis could almost pass for the average New Havener. That is, until
I spot the half-filled eight-gallon oil can in his hand, its contents clearly
visible through the plastic. His brow furrowing, he tells me, "I just
picked this up ten minutes ago on Chapel. Sometimes I just don’t understand
people." Originally from the Hill neighborhood, Peter Davis has long
dealt with the environmental dilemmas that plague industrial cities like
New Haven. 16 years ago, however, Davis decided that he and his hometown
had taken enough of a beating. The result has been what friends and foes
alike term a "one-man crusade" against environmental injustice-and
environmental apathy. A major breakthrough came in 1994, when he established
Canoe New Haven, a youth program intended to provide the children of some
of New Haven’s poorest neighborhoods with a scenic escape from city life.
These days he ceaselessly patrols the streets and riverbanks for illegal
dumping. He claims to have collected 14 million pounds of debris over the
past 16 years.

Davis’s newest nemesis is a particularly nasty post-industrial eyesore
on the Quinnipiac riverfront: the Lloyd Terminal Company in Fair Haven.
"Don’t get me wrong," Davis says of the company’s operations,
"I’m not against the principle of scrap metal recycling in general.
But I am against what hurts our wildlife and our community." Davis
claims that to save money and escape financial trouble, Lloyd Terminal has
piled its barges so high that debris falls off into the river. This flotsam
is more than just the standard fare of rotten shoes and discarded milk cartons
that litter any urban river: Davis has found needles, wheels, half-filled
oil cartons, car axles, traces of asbestos, and an entire piano. With rain
and high tides, the waste spills into the river and spreads.

Davis gestures anxiously at a photograph of a boy splashing in the Quinnipiac
with his dog. "There are people who fish in this river, who make their
living from it. And despite the water warnings, people will swim in the
water-like this kid. Eight gallons of oil pollutes roughly 1000 gallons
of water. And I’ve found thousands of discarded oil cartons on these streets
and river banks." Davis considers Lloyd Terminal’s repeated violations
of metal crushing regulations to be dangerous not only environmentally but
symbolically as well. He attributes the recent rise in local illegal dumping
partly to Lloyd Terminal’s setting a bad example. He laments, "Once
these companies get a government permit, they do anything they want, and
the people start to think they can do the same thing."

Thanks in large part to his efforts, however, the DEPartment of Environmental
Protection (DEP) has fined Lloyd Terminal repeatedly. In May of 2002, the
state ruled that Lloyd Terminal could continue to transfer its remaining
scrap, but suspended indefinitely the company’s right to crush additional
scrap metal. According to Davis, however, the issue remains unresolved,
and Lloyd Terminal has continued its metal crushing operations despite the
impositions of the DEP and the local police. As we drive to the site in
his pickup, Davis tells me that he has received a call from a local fisherman,
his "eyes and ears," telling him that the Lloyd Terminal machines
have been pounding metal all day. As we pull up to the site, a bright yellow
scrap metal machine is squatting in the middle of a towering mound of refuse.
Less than 30 feet downstream is a fisherman playing his trade. Workers from
the Lloyd Terminal site begin eyeing us, and Davis-who’s already slapped
the owner of Lloyd Terminal with two lawsuits for personally threatening
him-decides it’s time to go.

As the smokestacks and rust of industrial Fair Haven blur by us, Davis
points out the pristine outline of East Rock to our right. "The contrast
is unmistakable," he says. "The people of Fair Haven want what’s
over there over here." What Davis has in mind is a confluence of New
Haven communities through the "natural greenways and natural blessings"
of New Haven: the Mill River, the West River, and the Quinnipiac. When I
ask him about the reality of his vision in light of his tussle with the
Lloyd Terminal Company, his weatherbeaten face twists into a wry smile.
He assures me that the gradual return of wildlife to the area is a sign
that his efforts have not been fruitless. He also praises the efforts of
Mayor DeStefano, who "has seen the vision" and is now fully behind
Davis’ efforts to battle Lloyd Terminal. "I’ll never give in,"
Davis asserts. "My sons would never forgive me. They expect me to come
back covered in mud."

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