Profile: Protecting the Drinking Water of Millions of New Jerseyans

Delaware Riverkeeper Maya Van Rossum says her position is all about 'relationships, knowledge, and connections'

Maya van Rossum, Delaware Riverkeeper: Amendment "will provide a backstop for citizens..."
Name: Maya Van Rossum

Title: Delaware Riverkeeper, an organization dedicated to protecting the Delaware River Watershed. Its mission is to restore the watershed’s natural balance and ensure its preservation (where it still exists).

Age: 47

Education: Rossum earned an undergraduate degree from LaSalle University, a law degree from Pace University School of Law, and a master’s in corporate finance from the Widner University School of Law.

Why she is newsworthy: The Delaware River, the largest undammed river east of the Mississippi, flows 330 miles from New York state. It provides drinking water to 15 million people, approximately 5 percent of the nation’s population, including millions in New Jersey. Located adjacent to the nation’s most densely populated state (New Jersey) and states where huge supplies of natural gas have been discovered (Pennsylvania and New York), the quality of that drinking water is potentially threatened by efforts to extract the fuel by hydraulic fracturing (fracking). The process involves injecting massive amounts of water and smaller amounts of chemicals into natural gas formations to extract the fuel.

What she likes about her job, which she has held since 1996: “I really enjoy speaking truth to power and talking about why the Delaware Estuary is important. It links to every aspect of our lives. All of this is enhanced by the river being healthy.’’

Hometown: Villanova, PA; now lives in Byrn Mawr, PA.

Her favorite spot in New Jersey: Reed’s Beach in Cape May County, where thousands of migratory shorebirds come each May on their way to Arctic nesting grounds. The birds — Red Knots, Sanderlings, and Ruddy Turnstones — use the beaches to fuel up for the rest of their trip from South America, feeding on horseshoe crab eggs, the population of which has declined dramatically in recent years. Her organization filed a petition to have the Red Knots declared endangered; its population has dropped from more than 100,000 birds to about 15,000 in the past few years. “Everyone should be putting a moratorium on harvesting the crab in Delaware Bay,’’ she said.

Top environmental issues facing the estuary: “Overall, the river is at great risk of greater harm than it has been in 20 years. There is backsliding at every level and New Jersey is the leader,’’ she said.

Among the threats posed by the Garden State, she said, is the failure of state officials to address the problems caused by the Salem nuclear power plant, which kills millions of fish each year by sucking them into the facility. Environmental groups have pressed to force the company to install cooling towers to reduce the fish kill for years, but have been unsuccessful. The Delaware Riverkeeper recently joined with other environmental groups to force the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to issue a new water permit that would avert the fish kills.

Why her group opposes new drilling for natural gas in the region: Her organization and others also have opposed efforts to open up more areas in the Delaware River Basin to fracking, a practice they fear will taint drinking water supplies for the region. “The quality of drinking water is at threat,’’ Van Rossum said.

What she doesn’t like about the current political system: “It seems like politics is not about public service anymore. It’s more about access to power, both personal and political power.’’

Best advice she’s ever received: “Think about every word you write and say and make sure you say what you mean.’’

Why she thinks she is effective: “The longer I am in this position, the more I have to offer. A position like this is all about relationships, knowledge, and connections.’’

Her favorite line from her critics: She’s a pixie with attitude. In newspaper accounts, she has been called both a guardian and a gadfly.

Family: Married with two children.

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