Maya K. van Rossum
What’s it like to be THE Delaware Riverkeeper? That must be a lot of pressure!
It is truly an honor to be the person that bears the title of “the Delaware Riverkeeper.” There is a strong sense of responsibility. I really feel the gravity of the obligation to ensure that when I speak, I am truly speaking for the river and not for myself as a person. Before every public speaking event—whether it is giving a talk, testifying, serving on a committee and speaking at a meeting—I try to take a deep breath, touch the water in the river or a nearby creek, touch a tree, or look to the sky and remind myself of this responsibility.
But I know very well, and am always clear with everyone, that protecting a river is not the job of one person, it is truly the job of a community: each one of us working together and contributing our part. It is only through community concern and action that we will succeed in protecting the rivers, the trees, the air, the soils, the natural foods and the environments that sustain us and enrich our lives.
How did you get involved in clean water issues?
When I reflect on my life, I realize I have always been involved with these issues. Some of my fondest memories are of playing in my local Ithan Creek. And while my parents were not activists, they lived a life of environmental responsibility. I remember collecting leaves with my mother that others were throwing out in plastic bags for trash, composting, always using cloth bags for shopping, using reusable coffee cups, riding our bikes to places when it was feasible and putting our purchases in saddles bags on the bike, not having a grass lawn but a garden filled with native plants instead.
In case folks are thinking my parents were a pair of hippies, that couldn’t be further from the truth. My father was a biochemist and taught at Temple Medical school as well as doing scientific research in the U.S. and with others all over the world. My mother was a mathematician and university professor. There was nothing about them that said “hippie”—they were just smart and sensible people who recognized that the choices we make have ramifications.
You have so many accomplishments under your belt as the Delaware Riverkeeper – what would you say stands out as your most important one?
At the end of 2013, my organization was responsible for a critically important legal decision. The Delaware Riverkeeper Network and seven towns joined forces to challenge a Pennsylvania law that was very pro shale gas drilling and fracking. It would require towns to allow drilling in every part of every town, including allowing drilling sites and all of their hazards as close as 300 feet within a home, school, hospital, or playground. Mine was the only environmental organization willing to take this on, and using a 40-year old provision called the Environmental Rights Amendment, we secured an incredibly important legal decision from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. In striking down elements of the law as unconstitutional, the court ruled that the right to pure water, clean air and a healthy environment are inherent and indefeasible rights that are protected by the Pennsylvania Constitution and that they are rights that belong to present and future generations.
The findings of the conservative Pennsylvania Supreme Court are monumental, and we are working to use it as a way to spark a new environmental movement across the nation whereby every state will seek, secure and enforce and constitutional environmental rights provision that protects our inherent and indefeasible rights to pure water, clean air and a healthy environment and will one day lead to a federal constitutional protection of environmental rights.
What advice do you have for fighting fracking for all of those citizens out there working to protect their own hometowns?
- Embrace and demand your inherent and indefeasible right to pure water, clean air, and a healthy environment, and that these are rights that we must also protect for future generations. If you want to talk about how to get a successful constitutional provision to help in your efforts and as a rallying cry for protection, get in touch with me and I can help you figure out how: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Know that there are many smart experts that have confirmed and laid the blueprint for better sustainable energy options that can allow us to avoid ongoing use and new development of fossil fuels.
- Don’t believe the marketing rhetoric that shale gas and its infrastructure are inevitable, here to stay, and somehow beneficial — that rhetoric is paid for through lobbying.
- There are many people who genuinely don’t realize the hazards of drilling and fracking — continue your efforts to educate them and help them see the light. This is a part of our winning strategy.
- Find a way to work with all elements of your community who are opposed to shale gas development; don’t let the industry turn us against one another. Collectively, we will advance the ball.
- When fighting a pipeline or compressor, don’t fight for it to go in someone else’s backyard. Join forces and fight against the project altogether.
- Our collective efforts to turn the tide against shale gas drilling and fracking and towards sustainable energy are succeeding.
Your journey from concerned citizen to environmental superheroine is incredibly inspiring. What would you say to all those women out there who want to make the same journey, but think it’s too intimidating?
We all have the potential to be environmental heroes, and there are many ways to get there. Some will be vocal advocates and organizers, others will make careful life choices and teach their children to care deeply, some will work quietly in the background educating others, and some will run for office. Whatever your method, whatever your contribution, whatever your path, it is irreplaceably valuable.