Commentary: defending water: the Omega Institute's Water of Life conference and the fight for clean water.

Author:Belli, Brita

The problem, really, is that we in the land of plenty don't actually see water. The vast majority of us turn on faucets and hoses and stand under showers while our minds wander elsewhere--to the outcome of the baseball game or what to cook for dinner. The Water of Life conference, held this past weekend at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York, was a wake-up call of the highest order. (E Magazine, it should be noted, was a co-sponsor of the event). Because while we developed world denizens have been looking elsewhere, corporations worldwide have wrecked our freshwater supplies--through calculated pollution and privatization, through careless industrial farming and fishing, through dumped mining fills and toxic emissions that lace our waterways with mercury, poisoning our fish.

I heard a woman seated behind me mention to her colleague that she hoped the talks wouldn't be too depressing. It was the type of conference you enter with a sort of solemnity, understanding the gravity of the information that's about to land with a thud onto your lap, that you'll have to carry around, your own personal pile of guilt for asking, and doing, so little. God help those with the misfortune to have brought plastic bottled water into the event.


But the reality of the conference was far more hopeful than any of us might have imagined. This wasn't about lying down and feeling sorry for ourselves--this was about fighting. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., the chief prosecuting attorney for the Hudson Riverkeeper and president of the Waterkeeper Alliance, has been fighting major polluters his entire life, with the law as his weapon of choice. In some ways, it's been a personal fight, because the Hudson River in New York, the focus of so many of his successful environmental lawsuits, was where he wanted to fish, and boat and take his children--six of them in total--to appreciate the wild banks that have spawned American identity. This river became the dumping ground of the Penn Central Company's oil, of PCBs from the General Electric plant, of paint from the General Motors plant back in the mid-'60s, and it was a group of blue collar fishermen who challenged these companies, one by one, with the law, forming Riverkeeper and patrolling the Hudson to keep polluters on watch.

Citizen groups can work wonders, but when the government undercuts hard-won environmental regulations with industry-friendly pollution policies, as George Bush has done, they...

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