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River People

In the summer of 1978, North Haven resident Nancy Alderman and her husband were woken up nightly by a terrible smell wafting through the open windows of their home. One night her husband Myles got in the car to follow the stench to its source. He ended up at the chemical plant of the pharmaceutical manufacturing firm Upjohn, which had over one hundred smokestacks and vents. “It was two miles from our house, but I had no idea it existed,” Nancy Alderman told me over lunch. The plant was located on the banks of the Quinnipiac River, which would later provide a name for the environmental nonprofit that Alderman helped start—the Quinnipiac River Fund.

In many ways, the history of the Quinnipiac River Fund mirrors its namesake’s trajectory. Though at its source farther north, the river is a small brook, hardly visible on an aerial map, the river-mouth is impressive—a wide, dock-lined corridor crowded with lobster boats and spanned by a number of heavily-traveled bridges. The Quinnipiac River Fund’s origins are similarly humble, but it is now a widely-recognized non-profit that has financed countless environmental research and education projects. The non-profit’s existence, just like the cleaner water running in the Quinnipiac, is a testament to Alderman’s devotion to her surroundings. Her environmental work created a community of researchers and activists who want to change how we interact with our landscape. As they continue to confront environmental abuses after three decades of service, they are hoping that helping people develop personal relationships with the river will encourage them to protect it as well.

Activist Nancy Alderman stands in front of the Cytec Pharmaceutical Plant in Wallingford, Conn.

Alderman is a straight-talking New Englander, and she looks the part, with a penchant for thick sweaters and engaging eye-contact. She acquired a Master’s in Environmental Studies in 1997 and also serves as the founder and president of Environment and Human Health, Inc., a Connecticut non-profit that researches the effect of environmental factors on our health. When she and her husband discovered the Upjohn plant, she was thirty-nine and had no such credentials. A stay-at-home mom who dropped out of the Connecticut College for Women, she entered into environmental activism as a layman and concerned citizen. “At that time, women didn’t work,” she told me. “They were meant to get married and have children. But they did volunteer work in a very serious way.”

A large part of Alderman’s volunteer work took root in the days immediately following that night as she investigated what was going on inside the Upjohn factory. She tried to find out what kind of chemicals were causing the smell, but the managers of the factory rebuffed her. “What are they? They wouldn’t tell us. What are you making? Trade secret,” she said. Eventually she found that the company’s system of open-air waste management allowed the toxins she had smelled to be released into both the air and water. In 1978, she teamed up with the newly founded Connecticut Fund for the Environment (CFE), an environmental law group that aims to ensure that recent environmental legislation is enforced. Ignored by the local Upjohn administrators, Alderman and the founder of the CFE, Fred Krupp, took the fight to the national level. That meant buying enough shares of Upjohn to allow them to speak at the company’s annual General Meeting at its headquarters in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

“There was no question it was David and Goliath,” Alderman said, and she worked hard to win the fight. After years spent working on the case, Alderman and Krupp had won the support of 123,680 shareholders, whose shares totaled “a market value of over seven and one half million dollars.” They were backed by the United Presbyterian Church of America, the City of New Haven pension funds, the Union Trust Company, which is the third largest bank in Connecticut, Yale University, and First Bank, she said.

On May 19th, 1981, Alderman spoke at Upjohn’s annual General Meeting. I read a copy of the speech. Unexpectedly stirring, it incorporates her perspectives both as a shareholder of Upjohn and as a resident of North Haven. She referred to Upjohn as “our company” and to its policies as “our policies” while the Connecticut air and water remain “our air” and “our water” — despite the fact that the Quinnipiac River was hundreds of miles away from the Kalamazoo headquarters.  In front of the meeting attendees, she asked:

“How can The Upjohn Company expect to sell its pharmaceuticals to a trusting public when its chemical division is acting in such a secretive and arbitrary way? If our left hand is appearing to make people sick, how can we expect people to trust our right hand to make them well?”

The leaders of Upjohn were shocked. The meeting resulted in major changes: the North Haven plant was shut down, and the court case that the CFE and the Natural Resources Defense Council had brought against the company for not complying with its water permit was settled. Upjohn had to pay $1.2 million over the course of three years, money that established a permanent fund administered by the Community Foundation of Greater New Haven. What began with a chemical stench disturbing Alderman’s sleep grew into the Quinnipiac River Fund.

Other aspects of the landscape of New Haven County bear subtle traces of Alderman’s work. The Farmington Canal Greenway, a recreational path that cuts through cities and forests between New Haven and Granby, Connecticut, on the Massachusetts border, owes its existence to her. In 1987, she banded with other members of her community to prevent a large mall from being built in Hamden, looking for anything on the site that might halt the construction. They were hoping for wetlands; instead, they found an abandoned railway. It followed the route of a canal where mules used to plod along a towpath, pulling boats towards Northampton. With some legal help, Alderman had a rail-to-trail project underway, which both prevented the building of the mall and created the Farmington Canal Greenway across the state of Connecticut.

Through her non-profit Environment & Human Health, Inc., she has convinced school-bus drivers to turn off their motors when they wait for kids, persuaded schools to stop using carcinogenic artificial turf, and completed the largest study of well water in the United States. But the project that has brought about the most long-term changes—and created the widest circle of activists—was her work that led to the founding of the “Q-River Fund,” as it’s lovingly nicknamed.

My first glimpse of the Quinnipiac River was on a cool afternoon in early April. I had biked from downtown New Haven along Chapel Street, through the leafy neighborhood around Wooster Square, which morphed into towering mounds of gravel and sand beside dilapidated factories near the Mill River. As I crossed the drawbridge over the Mill, I saw white cylinders farther up the river. Then the industrial landscape gradually became abandoned-looking houses with faded vinyl siding and an enormous Mexican restaurant called Guadalupe La Poblanita, empty in the early afternoon.

Coming over a little hill where Chapel becomes Front Street, I had seemingly crossed into an idyllic New England village: just beyond a stand of trees was the Quinnipiac River, its wide surface flecked with white caps, and beyond that a low green hill with a white spire. As I biked along Quinnipiac River Park, I looked at one of the Victorian houses across the river, where Ian Christmann lives with his family.

Christmann is a photographer and part of Alderman’s community of activists. He received funding from the Quinnipiac River Fund to create a photography exhibit called “Consider the Quinnipiac” and in July turned it into an online gallery and virtual tour of the same name. The Quinnipiac River Fund tests water quality, measures soil erosion and quantifies invertebrate populations, but exists also to raise awareness about the river.

In living and working along the Quinnipiac, Christmann has come to know the river intimately. He knows that five miles upstream it becomes quiet, with no boats, but much marshland and the occasional low bridge. He knows that half of the river’s length is tidal, and that fifteen to thirty million tires have been illegally dumped in the river near North Haven. He has photographed hundreds of secret moments of life along the river: a swan poking its head down into its stick-mound nest, a dusting of snow on the tugboats and docks, a fisherman looking out from the sleet-grey mountain of oyster shells on the deck of his boat. “Lots of people don’t know this area exists,” Christmann told me in his living room, which looks out over the Quinnipiac.

Ironically, this landscape is what first attracted the Puritans who set up the colony that would become New Haven. In 1637, Boston businessman Theophilus Eaton received reports of “the rich and goodly meadows of Quinnipiack” from captains who were fighting off the Pequot tribe and who hoped that the English would capitalize on the river before the Dutch did. After visiting the site, Eaton sent word to his school-friend John Davenport that he had no trouble imagining it as “a thriving Wilderness Zion,” as Rollin G. Osterweis puts it in Three Centuries of New Haven. Davenport arrived one year later with 500 followers.

Christmann’s online gallery outlines the history of the Quinnipiac, explaining how the river remained central to the New Haven economy well into the 19th century. Its bottom was encrusted with jagged oyster beds so extensive that the area was known as “Clamtown.” The Quinnipiac port had a brisk traffic of merchants, fishermen and sailors, who called New Haven “Dragon” after the “sea dragons,” or harbor seals, that fed on the river’s fish and mollusks.

When his family first moved to New Haven, Christmann explained, “nobody was talking about the river. We felt there was a negative stigma about it.”  Part of that was due to the pollution that began with 19th century industrialization and continued into recent years. Christmann explained that people thought the river was unsalvageable because it repeatedly failed to meet state and national water quality standards. Over time, the generalized sense of apathy cleared the way for more dumping in the river.

Safety was also an issue, Christmann said. “Crime levels were higher here than downtown.” With the river’s reputation tarnished, the neighborhood surrounding it became less desirable and more dangerous. People whose families might once have been closely involved with the river moved away, or retreated into their homes, disengaging from the community. So Christmann felt it was important that his project organize itself around locals reclaiming the river from different angles.

“Our intent was that people upstream and downstream learn about the conditions, both good and bad,” Christmann said, explaining that the fund took the exhibit on tour along the riverbanks, from town hall to library to town hall, ending up in the Connecticut State Capitol building in Hartford. “It was great to have decision-makers see the exhibit,” he added. He seemed hopeful.

Although Alderman and Christmann both expressed worry for the health of the river, one activist in their community stands out for his extreme view on our relationship to nature, arguing that it may be too late to create a healthy environment.  Since 2000, physician Jerry Silbert has been the executive director of the Watershed Partnership, an environmental organization that has spearheaded multiple projects relating to the Quinnipiac River, some financed by the Q-River Fund.  Despite his success at getting several kinds of carcinogenic chemicals banned from being used on school lawns, he think it’s too late to undo the damage we’ve done to our environment.  He says we should be focusing on “how to maintain a semblance of civilization” in the face of the ever-worsening environmental crisis.  “Nature doesn’t negotiate, it just responds, and I think that response will be very harsh,” he told me over the phone, explaining that we now need to think about providing food through local infrastructure so that we are not relying on systems that require fossil fuels when those systems collapse. “I applaud the sentiment of sustainability, but I think one has to look critically at whether what one is doing is window-dressing or putting a band-aid on a hemorrhaging artery.”

He is particularly frustrated at how governments are doing next to nothing for the environment, and at how “the captains of industry don’t recognize what’s happening.”  That disconnect exists on a worldwide scale, not just in New Haven County.  Even with increased interest in the Quinnipiac since the inception of the Fund, the river has still been making headlines for its precarious condition.  In January, local paper The Record-Journal reported that the Cytec chemical plant in Wallingford, just blocks from the river, had been listed as the second biggest releaser of toxic waste in the state of Connecticut.  And on July 31st, The Hartford Courant reported a fire in a forging plant in Southington.  Over 1000 gallons of oil are thought to have drained into the Quinnipiac. These events validate Silbert’s feeling that parties at all levels have to be engaged in protecting the environment.

That got me thinking about how interest in the Quinnipiac River is transferred from one person to the next. Educators and artists need to care to get residents thinking about the river; residents need to care to help make the lobbies successful at changing legislation; lawmakers need to care to listen to the lobbies; law-enforcers have to care to uphold new legislation; heads of industry need to care to actually change practices instead of looking for loopholes. You can string all those players together in any number of different webs, but it will always end up an intricate codependency.

Wherever Alderman, Christmann, and Silbert fit into that chain, there is no question that they have all inserted themselves into the ecosystem of the river to try to generate more care and interest.  Yet I can imagine how associating yourself so closely with a river can make you as vulnerable to changes as the water and the bank. Over thirty years ago, Alderman was awakened by a bad smell; now she needs something to rouse the rest of us.

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