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Environmentalists Track Pollutants in Waterways
7 May 2005
The New York Times

The helicopter pilot knows a New York no one else knows, the contours of the great green torch on Liberty Island, the towers of the Brooklyn Bridge as they appear to the suicidal, Yankee Stadium after the lights go out.

Five hundred feet above the city streets, a pilot named Yossi Benbassat sped past such rare visions yesterday, past Central Park and the skyscrapers of Midtown, then across the East River at a sprint. Above the giant Pepsi-Cola sign, he slowed into a lazy spin over Newtown Creek, the East River inlet separating Brooklyn from Queens.

Here were sights his passengers would never find from the ground: long, milky slicks of oil and sewage, streams within streams of industrial runoff hidden behind fences and past sunken debris no boat could negotiate. The passengers, a lawyer, a boat captain and a photographer for the environmental group Riverkeeper, had been waiting for this view for more than a year.

''I can't do any more from the water,'' said the boat captain, John Lipscomb, 51, who patrols the Hudson River for the group. He took his place in the rear cabin of the helicopter, his knees pressed against a newspaper photographer's, clutching a stack of nautical maps.

Basil Seggos, the lawyer, sat in the front passenger seat and directed Mr. Benbassat from one spill to the next. Riverkeeper has filed lawsuits against companies ranging from Exxon Mobil to individual property owners along the Brooklyn waterways, and Mr. Seggos was in the air to find leads and evidence.

To that end, he brought along a photographer named Giles Ashford, 46, who never broke concentration as he pulled digital cameras from a briefcase, despite a confessed deep vodka hangover and an attempt at aeronautical humor expressed by Mr. Benbassat in the form of a sudden swooping turn that brought the cabin parallel to the ground.

Somewhere over Greenpoint, the mission hit a snag. Through headphones worn by all the passengers, a controller told Mr. Benbassat that landing patterns at La Guardia Airport would prevent them from flying farther east. In his dealings with ground control, Mr. Benbassat provided as little information as necessary, reporting that he was at 500 feet and was ''taking, ah, photos.''

The helicopter flew down the harbor, its blades churning the air, its engine bouncing the riders' shoes, soaring past a warehouse with big block letters spelling out ''Buy American,'' past metallic docks along the coastline, over the Brooklyn Navy Yard, weaving just above the cranes, flying over earthmovers pushing piles of gravel.

''Hey, Basil, there's a cherry picker back in the water,'' Mr. Lipscomb called into his headset. ''It's at the northeast corner of the Erie Basin, so turn.''

''I got it,'' Mr. Seggos said. ''A yellow crane. Dead ahead.''

''There's someone working down there,'' Mr. Lipscomb said.

''Can you tell what they're doing?''

''It looks like they're removing debris. They're cleaning it.''

''All right,'' Mr. Seggos said. ''Let's move on to the Gowanus.''

Mr. Ashford was squinting now, leaning into the open window, holding his camera out over Brooklyn. He photographed piles of lumber blocking the Gowanus Canal, and inlets filled with shimmering pools of oil, kaleidoscopic stuff. Mr. Seggos pointed to a streak in the water near a parked truck. Later, he said, he would use a database of property owners to identify the lot where the spill began.

While they had the helicopter, the men flew over Staten Island to document the Fresh Kills landfill for another environmental group.

''They say you can see this from space,'' Mr. Lipscomb said.

''This and the Great Wall of China,'' Mr. Seggos said.

''It's an urban myth, the Great Wall of China,'' Mr. Ashford said, never looking up from his camera.

''Oh,'' Mr. Lipscomb said. ''Well, it's a good one.''

Back on the ground, Mr. Ashford said his travels with Riverkeeper had inspired his artistic impulses.

''I've photographed water ripples that are just stunning, Zen-like,'' Mr. Ashford said. His traveling companions have started pointing out beautiful water ripples too, he said, ''which is funny, because they're usually just looking at the evil side of it.''
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