Pittsburgh — Visitors to this city’s rivers are likely to see, on any given day, a boat bearing the logo Three Rivers Waterkeeper (3RWK).
Whether on a mission to sample water or investigate pollution, the 16-foot vessel represents an organization founded in 2009 to protect the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers.
The boat is helmed by a dedicated river keeper, and the organization itself is headed by Heather Hulton VanTassel, 33, who assumed the role of executive director in July 2021 as part of a restructuring plan.
“The previous executive director was also the river keeper, but the board decided during COVID that, given the size of our jurisdiction and the amount of pollution in our rivers, they should be two separate positions,” VanTassel said.
“The board also wanted to expand our presence on the waterways,” she said.
3RWK patrols to the fourth lock and dam on each river, performing much of its work on the main stems but also on their tributaries and on land within their watersheds. The group monitors for pollution and works to hold offenders accountable.
It enlists community members in stewardship through its 3Rivers Watch program.
When a dock owner on the Monongahela River near Pittsburgh contacted 3RWK last spring about an oil slick periodically fouling the area where he likes to swim and fish, the group swung into action.
The river keeper made several trips to the site, stayed in touch with the person who reported the complaint, and eventually located the source – a steel processing plant upriver.
“It was a Sunday, but we called the EPA’s (Environmental Protection Agency’s) emergency response team and they came out in less than two hours,” recalled VanTassel.
“They determined it was a violation of the Clean Water Act and were able to get the leak immediately stopped. One of the best things about being Water Keeper is being able to work with industries and agencies to stop pollution without having to go into litigation. That’s why we’re here.”
Of course, it’s a mammoth challenge.
Although western Pennsylvania’s rivers have come a long way from their industrial past, they will always be a work in progress, VanTassel noted.
“Fifty years ago, they were considered devoid of aquatic life, and didn’t feel welcoming to the average person, but thanks to the Clean Water Act, they’re no longer catching fire, and on days when there’s no pollution overflow, it’s safe to swim in them.”
Bald eagles nesting on each of the Three Rivers and a proliferation of marinas and outfitters are testament to the progress that has been made so far, she said.
But industries continue to create impacts, and “forever” chemicals associated with countless everyday products ranging from non-stick cookware to carpeting, are an area of increasing concern, VanTassel said.
The new Shell cracker plant on the Ohio River is a particular focus, since the nurdles it produces for plastic-making are considered toxic to fish and other wildlife.
Before joining 3RWK, VanTassel was assistant director of science and research at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History but found there wasn’t enough environmental stewardship involved.
The desire to do hands-on resource conservation also dissuaded her from making a life in academia, although she earned a doctoral degree in evolution, ecology and organismal biology at the University of California Riverside.
Her doctoral work explored impacts of human-caused environmental change, such as fire and the introduction of invasive species, on desert wildlife communities.
Her post-doctoral research looked at how climate change and development have affected the endangered California gnatcatcher.
VanTassel knew from having spent time as an undergraduate in Costa Rica that “doing environmental steward work was my joy.”
Before moving to Pittsburgh, VanTassel, a native of Lawrence County, lived in South Carolina, working first for Audubon as program manager for sustainable communities, and then with The Nature Conservancy, advising property owners who held conservation easements in how to manage their land.
“I loved my work with the Conservancy, but my husband and I were looking to come back to western Pennsylvania. He’s from the Lawrence County area, too,” she said.
Landing a job with 3RWK was a unique opportunity to actively make a difference, she said. “In a lot of ways, it’s the perfect position for me to do conservation work. I can have an academic mindset with practical, purposeful application.”
It’s not always about science when VanTassel is on the water. She and her family are boaters and appreciate the value of clean rivers as a recreational resource.
“My husband and I own a vessel – a ski boat – and we wakeboard and swim,” she said. “We have a 5-year-old we’ve taken out on the water since he was 6 months old. My husband is an angler.”
“We have a deep connection to the water.”