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Activist Throws his Heart, Lawsuits – and Nearly His Life – into the Patuxent River

Fred Tutman guided a motorboat across a wide expanse of water fringed by trees in southern Maryland.

 “So we’re on the Patuxent River, roughly the central portion of the 110 mile linear watershed,” said Tutman, 57, a former television reporter and producer turned environmental advocate. “This is called jug bay, which is basically a big nature preserve.”

 A field of lily pads slid past, their heart-shaped leaves floating on the shallow water. Bright yellow blossoms on long stalks winked just beneath the surface.

Tutman is a seventh-generation farmer who grew up beside the river. For the last 11 years, he’s devoted his life to running a nonprofit organization, called Patuxent Riverkeeper, that is dedicated to cleaning up the waterway.

 “My job is to protect water quality,” Tutman said, as a great blue heron flew overhead.   “And the way I do that is through community organizing, rallying people, building enthusiasm, and empowering people to fight for the river.”

As he spoke, between the trees at the far end of the lake-like widening of the waterway, the smokestacks of Maryland’s largest coal-fired power plant rose.  The Chalk Point Generating Station looked almost like the City of Oz – but a dark Oz -- looming over the field of yellow lilies.

“Chalk Point is a 1960’s vintage coal-burning power plant,” Tutman explained.  “It’s an old design, which has a number of impacts on the river.  It has a cooling canal that runs through the interior of the plant and sucks water out of the Patuxent and vents it out the other end of the plant grounds. And that creates problems, in terms of hot water discharges. The plant also has a coal waste stream, and it actually pollutes right now at about 40 times its permitted limits from a discharge pipe into the Patuxent.  So we have an enforcement action going and we are partnered with the state of Maryland to bring the plant into compliance and to impose fines for its over-the-top discharges.”

Tutman explained that this lawsuit is one of about ten that he is involved in against polluters along the river. And while that number may sound excessive, he argues that lawsuits have been one of the few things that have actually worked to improve the river.

A lawsuit against Maryland back in the 1970s by former Calvert County Commissioner Bernie Fowler – who now sits on Tutman’s board -- forced the state and upstream counties to modernize sewage treatment plants along the Patuxent. This succeeded in reducing pollution for a time.  But then suburban sprawl and population growth dumped more runoff pollution into the waterway.

“The Patuxent River is in trouble, like many of the Chesapeake Bay tributaries,” Tutman said. “It is a death by a thousand cuts.   It’s growth, diffuse discharges from construction sites, parking lots, and runoff.  It’s 36 wastewater treatment plants,  industrial dischargers. The list is long.  And the river has been receiving  a D minus grade consistently for its health for the last several years. It’s shocking. I think it should build citizen outrage, and that is one of our goals: to build constructive outrage to demand change.”

Tutman has thrown his body and soul into a continuing fight for the river. He filed a lawsuit against Wal Mart over a proposal to build a Super WalMart in a farm field surrounded by family farms in Bowie.

But his litigation also nearly cost him his life.

“The very first lawsuit I worked on was within weeks of me taking the job as riverkeeper,” Tutman said.  “And it ended up in a situation where I stayed up many days and nights drafting a legal complaint and at the end of it, I collapsed.  I found myself in the cardiac ward.  I had pushed a little too hard and really depleted my stamina. They called it a ‘cardiac event.’ My heart stopped beating.”

Tutman woke up in the hospital – and eventually recovered.  And his 2005 lawsuit against a sewage treatment plant run by the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission ended up as a victory for the river.  The lawsuit resulted in a $350 million settlement that paid for repairs at the facility that reduced water pollution.

But the near-death incident also taught him a lesson:   He can’t be a guardian only of natural resources. He must also be a good steward of his own personal resources: his time, his energy, his health, and his heart.

“To make the Patuxent River better will take a little bit of something from everyone,” Tutman said. “Not money per se -- but participation, vigilance, the willingness to step up and the willingness to express dissent.  And that’s really tricky,” Tutman said. “I think people are in favor of environmentalism up until the point where it doesn’t interfere with their everyday life; it doesn’t interfere with the PTA meetings, and commuting to work, and doing all that other stuff.”

“It is a burden to be vigilant,” Tutman said. “It is a burden to fight for something that really we shouldn’t have to fight for, such as protecting the commons. But we absolutely need to do it.”

The Patuxent is the longest river entirely within Maryland’s boundaries.  If state residents lose the Patuxent to sprawl and pollution, they have nobody to blame but themselves. 

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.