By JUDEE BURR/ecoRI News contributor
Margaret Miner stood in front of a mountain of gravel next to the Mossup River in eastern Connecticut. We approached the edge of the hard-hat area and peered up at a big, yellow excavator using its mechanical arm to shift mounds of sand around the sprawling industrial site.
Miner felt sure this was the site she had been asked to investigate; it would be very concerning if there was more than one of these along the Mossup River, she said. We walked toward the middle of the bridge to get a closer look at the river’s exposure to the project and looked for any waste spilling in.
Miner directs the Rivers Alliance of Connecticut. She finds out about the state’s impaired waters from phone calls and e-mails: trout struggling to get over a dam; a river running unusually dry; a construction project sending pollution into a waterway.
The Rivers Alliance acts as an environmental “helpline,” responding to calls from concerned citizens by investigating. Miner knows how to ask municipal officials pointed questions and rally her environmental allies when necessary.
“Even if it’s just one person, we will try to help them,” she said. “Anytime I get a call ... in six months, two to three calls on the same issue — like gravel mining next to the river — it’s a policy issue. It always turns out to be at least a state policy issue and frequently a global issue.”
For all the work and hours put in helping to protect Connecticut’s environment, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently awarded Miner with its Lifetime Merit award. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., nominated Miner for the award, calling her a “champion of the planet,” as quoted in the EPA press release announcing the honor.
Miner hasn’t used the award as an excuse to slow down.
“When I got this EPA award, I was sitting there — there were lots of awardees — and I was thinking, ‘If we’re all doing such great work, how come India has just recorded 120 (degrees)? We’re sitting here applauding each other; we should be out picketing or something!” she said, with a mix of frustration and laughter.
“Of course, it’s good to applaud each other,” she admitted. But her voice and smile convey her restlessness and commitment. She approaches her work with the thoughtfulness of a former writer and the practiced bullheadedness of an advocate who knows how many fights she has left to win. She bemoans the state we have left our planet in, while doggedly taking steps to improve and protect Connecticut’s natural resources.
Miner has worked with the Rivers Alliance since 1999. The organization’s small team, of which Miner is the sole full-time staffer, partners with a strong coalition of conservation groups that its leader has expertly leveraged to win environmental fights on the state and local level.
Sometimes this coalition works to improve state water policy, such as the campaign for stricter regulation of withdrawals from Connecticut’s rivers. Miner noted that most of Connecticut’s problems with water diversions from rivers are caused by large water users with grandfathered-in rights to the water. Although she has been working on this issue for more than a decade, there was still some incredulity in Miner’s voice as she described the disconnect between the law and the science of waterways.
“If you have a registration that dates back to 1982, you say, ‘Well, we’re allowed, we registered and we can take this much water.’ It doesn’t matter even if there isn’t that much water there,” she said. “The person who holds the registration — usually a utility, but it could be a golf course or a farmer — can just keep pumping. And the river runs dry, then they have to stop.”
The Rivers Alliance is still working to improve Connecticut’s water policy. The organization was one of the groups that advocated for comprehensive statewide water planning — a process Connecticut eventually initiated in 2014. The alliance also helped pass stronger stream-flow regulations in 2005, despite opposition from municipalities and utilities.
Among its latest projects is a campaign to better protect Long Island Sound, being conducted in partnership with other state environmental organizations.
Miner’s two children have followed in her footsteps. Her son runs a diving school in Indonesia, and her daughter is the executive director of the Weantinoge Heritage Land Trust, Connecticut’s largest.
“No,” Miner said without hesitation when asked whether she raised her children to be in the environmental field. “I wasn’t in the field.”
Indeed, Miner took an indirect route to becoming an environmental leader. She studied philosophy and worked as an editor and then local reporter. She was raised in New York City and Brooklyn, N.Y., but her family frequently escaped the city to a house her father built beside a swath of farmland in Kent. She eventually moved to Connecticut, where she transitioned from local reporting to heading the Roxbury Land Trust, before moving to the Rivers Alliance.
“I think that probably was it,” Miner said, when asked whether visiting Connecticut as a child was the spark for her environmental awareness and involvement. “When I was a kid, we used to spend a lot of time just walking around in the woods and fields and climbing trees and looking for animals. I developed, I guess, an affection for the natural world of western Connecticut.
“Although, I find it hard to imagine that anyone in this state wouldn’t be sensitive to what’s happening — frankly, in the world — that wouldn’t be sensitive to what’s happening to our poor planet Earth.”