John McKeeby’s approach to environmental conservation starts at the Schoharie River Center.
Every year, the program he oversees out of a small church on the Schoharie Creek in Esperance engages young students and at-risk youth in a variety of activities that help them understand the dynamic properties of the area’s waterways. Whether monitoring pollutants in local streams or sifting for artifacts on their banks, the river center has helped more than 800 Capital Region youths take a vested interest in local ecology.
“Our youth go out to different communities, and they will pass on their knowledge,” McKeeby said.
Founded in 1999, the nonprofit organization has an environmental study team that regularly monitors water quality in area streams, rivers and lakes. They collect water samples, test them for indicators of pollutants and compare their results with state Department of Environmental Conservation standards to see if irregularities are present.
Often, the river center’s young researchers publish their findings and present them to interested agencies. And sometimes, their results are enough to gain the attention of state regulators.
“By the time they’re getting ready for college, they’ve initiated research, they’re published and they’ve presented it to groups,” McKeeby said of his students.
The center was among eight organizations across the state recognized by the DEC for having innovative programs that help sustain New York’s resources and strengthen the economy. Now in its 10th year, the Environmental Excellence Awards are given to both private-sector businesses and nonprofit organizations that use creative partnerships to help preserve the environment.
The eight award recipients were selected from a pool of 32 candidates. Advanced Climate Technologies Bioenergy, a Niskayuna company that manufactures high-efficiency boiler systems, was recognized along with the river center during an event hosted at the Golub Corp.’s headquarters in downtown Schenectady.
DEC Commissioner Joe Martens lauded all the award winners, stressing their work continues to lead the way for the state’s green economy. Whether building rooftop greenhouses that raise produce to feed New York City or implementing a post-flood emergency intervention plan to help return stream channels to their natural state, he said the award recipients all help create an atmosphere of social responsibility and economic viability.
“These inspiring success stories have created a greater awareness of environmental sustainability and have contributed to a stronger economy through cost-effective innovations,” he said.
The river center’s work has helped draw attention to the health of area waterways on several occasions. In 2009, a student-researched report found leachate from the capped Duanesburg landfill seeping into the Normans Kill — something that appeared to affect the level of microbial lifeforms at the site when compared to upstream sections of the creek.
The students also looked into town records detailing groundwater tests at the landfill and determined it routinely had chemical levels exceeding state regulations. In particular, the documents suggest the well nearest to the creek routinely exhibited chemical levels greater than those stipulated by the DEC.
More recently, the river center was awarded $10,000 to expand its reach through the state’s Mohawk River Basin Program. Part of the funding enabled the group to replant trees along the Schoharie Creek’s channel, which scoured away large swaths of vegetation during flooding from Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.
So far, youths with the river center have planted more than 2,000 trees along the Schoharie Creek. The effort has helped transform stretches of the stream bank that were left barren after the flood.
“It’s been amazing to watch,” McKeeby said.
ACT Bioenergy was recognized for producing about two dozen biomass boilers that have been installed throughout the state. The systems are between 10 percent and 20 percent more efficient than conventional wood boiler systems and produce about one-third less emissions.
“These boilers are the first of their kind on the market,” said Paul Boyle, a representative of the company.
Installed at large institutions such as the Wild Center in Tupper Lake or Clarkson University, the boilers conserve about 370,000 gallons of oil per year and helped reduce carbon emissions by 4,100 tons, Boyle said. Also, the fuel for the boilers is produced in New York, meaning they help reduce the cost of importing fuel from out of state and abroad.
“It keeps your dollars local,” he said.