Read the full article by Courtland Milloy (The Washington Post)
“On the wooded banks of the Patuxent River, which flows past his farmland near Upper Marlboro, Md., Fred Tutman, 62, communes with nature.
‘In a romantic sense, I’ve had a connection to the river since I was a boy,’ he said. ‘It’s like we’re in communication.’
What the river is telling him, however, is no love story. It’s a warning.
‘The river is a mess, sick with pollution,’ Tutman said. ‘But in the end, we’ll be the ones that suffer.’
The Patuxent, once known as ‘Maryland’s greatest river,’ is a source of water for more than a million residents in the D.C. area. As one of the top 10 tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay, the river will have a say in whether the nation’s largest coastal estuary gets cleaned up.
Along its 110-mile journey, beginning just north of Howard County, there are 36 wastewater treatment facilities. Nearly 1.5 million people live within the Patuxent watershed — the area that drains into the river — and when they flush, tons of waste gets processed and pumped into the waters.
In 2007, the Patuxent River Commission, composed of scientists, government officials and environmental activists, issued a report — co-authored by Tutman — citing “urbanization and overdevelopment” in the watershed as major contributors of pollution in the river.
Other culprits included a coal-fired power plant, agricultural operations and some military installations along the river.
The report, Patuxent River 20/20, sounded a hopeful note: that with a clear vision and determination the river could be healthy again by the year 2020.
An indication of how much progress had been made came in 2018 when the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science issued a report card on river quality in the area. The Patuxent got a D.
Tutman thinks it ought to be an F. Not for the river, but for the humans who have become numbed to pollution and fail to appreciate our need for clean water.
‘We can hardly imagine the clarity of the water and the bounty of life that it sustained when Algonquin-speaking Native Americans lived here 400 years ago,’ Tutman said. ‘We have been poor stewards of the land.’
He recalled swimming in the river as a boy and later becoming a volunteer guide, leading children and adults on river walks and canoe and kayak trips.As he noticed the river becoming dirtier, he began organizing river cleanups.
But conditions continued to worsen. As more housing developments and industries encroached upon the river, more chemicals began showing up in water tests, he said. The river began developing what environmentalists call ‘dead zones,’ oxygen-deprived areas where all life has died.
In 2004, Tutman gave up a career as an independent television producer and joined the Waterkeeper Alliance, a global nonprofit that advocates for clean water. There are more than 300 ‘waterkeepers’ and ‘riverkeepers’ in 40 countries, each one an advocate for a polluted waterway or, as Tutman put it, the ‘voice of the river.’
He founded the Patuxent Riverkeeper and took up the mantle as a public voice of the river — the river with which he had so often communed.
So far, he has filed 19 lawsuits against alleged polluters — 12 of which went to trial and eight of which his side won. Victories included the 2017 closing of the NRG coal-waste disposal site in Brandywine.
Coal waste, which contains arsenic, a known carcinogen, and other harmful chemicals were seeping into groundwater within the Patuxent watershed.
Brandywine is a predominantly black community. Residents had been fighting to have the site closed for years, all the while being plagued by a polluter that should never have been allowed to operate near them in the first place.
The victory was also a win for environmental justice, which Tutman believes is a more effective rallying cry than appeals that do not include helping people…”