Thomas J. Murphy (transcript only)

AC=Ann Cummings
TJM=Thomas J. Murphy

AC: Today is Saturday, May 9th, 2009. I am Ann Cummings and James Morahan is here with me as well from DePaul University. We are interviewing Tom Murphy for the archives of the Edgewater Historical society. We plan on using the Interview in conjunction with an exhibit that will be displayed at the EHS during the month of June, 2009, marking the 100th anniversary of the 1909 Chicago plan. Our group is focusing on Edgewater lakefront political activism. Our goal today is to understand Tom’s background and his particular experiences with Operation Lakewatch. We are conducting the interview at the EHS located 5358 N. Ashland Ave, Chicago IL, 60640. Tom Murphy will you please give us your full name.

TJM: Thomas J. Murphy

AC: Thank you. Can you describe your experiences with environment protection prior to Operation Lakewatch?

TJM: Well I was a chemist at DePaul and my research involved atmospheric inputs of toxic transport in the atmosphere in deposition to lakes and things like that. I had been involved with the Lake Michigan Federation for a number of years. From their inceptions, actually before their inception and their founder was a lady by the name of Lee Botts, whom ultimately ran for Sanitary district Commissioner later on and was the Environmental Commissioner of Chicago. In the early days of the Lake Michigan Federation the staff member was Mary Ann Smith. But I’ve been involved with environmental issues, mostly related to water but also air i guess, since the late sixties.

AC: How did the idea for Operation Lakewatch come about?

TJM: Mary Ann Smith and Kathy Osterman were both activist here and Mary Ann had been involved with lake issues, like I said she was a staffer with the Lake Michigan Federation and the big issue in those days were PCB’s, Polychlorinated Biphenyl. Industrial chemical got into the lake principally from the atmosphere. But there were very high levels on the fish: the lake trout were 20parts per million, the coho five or six or eight parts per mil., there were significant health advisories for people who ate allot of them and particularly for woman of childbearing age because the PCB’s were fat soluble. Some were transferred in utero and to the placenta. But then if the woman nursed than the PCBs were in the breast milk. And breast feeding was out of sorts before than and people put a lot of pressure for it and Mary Ann was big on that. She started a group "PCB Gone" a number of years prior to that. So anyway, and Kathy Osterman was very much a lakefront person for the beach. They wanted to clean up the lake and clean up the beaches. They were, as I remember it, the people started it.

AC: Who were the other members of Operation Lakewatch, like the original members?

TJM: Sandy Stein and I’m not sure who knew him or how he got involved but he was interested and willing and he was lawyer. It’s nice to have a lawyer around for these things. The other person, once we sort of got underway a little bit, and decided what to do we needed someone to do the leg work to talk to the people, It was set up as an organization that would monitor the lakefront so we needed people to monitor. and the monitors were seen as people who were users of the lakefront. People who had high rises that overlooked the lakefront, the fisherman and boaters who used the lake, and possibly airline pilots who flew over the lake. Much of the traffic into O’Hare comes in from the East. The planes fly East, they circle over the lake and get inline and those people see the lake front. But we tried to tap into those natural observers to monitor what was going on.

AC: Do you keep in contact with any of those original members?

TJM: Well, Kathy died a few years back. Mary Ann, very much so. I am in her ward and so I see her regularly. Sandy infrequently, really I only see him at functions related with Mary Ann, I guess he’s kept up with her pretty well and John Berzins I don’t know has disappeared. I haven’t seen him; I’m sure, in twenty years.

AC: Where did Operation Lakewatch find its assistance or funding?

TJM: The typical non for profit funding groups, I guess. Interestingly, the earliest, or some of the earliest funding came from the water reclamation district commissioners. I guess we actually sent the district a proposal for $1000 and the district didn’t fund us but each of the nine commissioners gave us $110 so we got $990 out of the commissioners. It was, in some fashion maybe…you can look at it as shake down money or something.

AC: Can you talk about one of the first activities you can remember with Operation Lakewatch and your experience with it or something you remember about it?

TJM: So John was a fisherman and so we hired him, he was employed. He would have talked to people using the lakefront but then the goal was to do monitoring and so we knew we had to do something that we could test for. The chemicals in that are not the problem. The issue with the lakefront, the hazard to people, is microbiological contamination. You know, Infectious organisms and essentially from sewage, from animals and people who use the lake. The park district in the summertime, every day they check the beaches. So we started a monitoring program. I knew a microbiologist at Northern Illinois and so he was willing to, not only advise us, but also sort of lend his name to the project so we did have a certified and he was a public health microbiologist. He had just exactly the background we needed and he could say, you know that these were standard methods and they did things properly. There are commercial sampling equipment that you can buy that is sterile and is setup to do this sort of thing. So we bought those monitors. So, in effect, you sample the water, you filter some of the water, and then you take the filter and you add nutrients, each organism is different. In affect you the organisms are collected on the filter and if you add the appropriate nutrients they’ll grow. They’ll form little colonies, they’ll multiply and form a little colony. So you select the organisms by what nutrients you put on and then usually… [interview abruptly ends]

AC: Today is Saturday, May 9th, 2009. I am Ann Cummings and James Morahan is here with me as well from DePaul University. We are interviewing Tom Murphy for the archives of the Edgewater Historical society. This is part 2 of our interview. What do you feel Operation Lakewatch’s greatest successes were?

TJM: We were talking about the sampling.

AC: Oh ok, the sampling.

TJM: So anyway, so there is this commercial sampling materials that you can buy and the thing is that they can, with a little bit of training, anybody could use them. So it’s something that could be given to the fisherman or boaters to take water samples. And then John’s job then was to take those samplers and do the proper incubation on them and then stain them and then count the colonies. So that was the system that we had and so we were testing for something of significance: is the water contaminated? So we tested, certainly for E. coli, which is an indicator organism that sewage is present. I don’t know if we ever did fecal choloforms, id have to check the records on that, but that’s a more rigorous indicator of contamination. Anyway, so…

AC: What were Operation Lakewatch greatest successes?

TJM: Well, being the medium for finding the contamination from the McCormick Convention Center and later on, taking the city to task for Chicago Fest on Navy Pier, and just monitoring the harbors and lakefront and also making people aware of it and I think the public relations, people could do things that someone was watching, I guess…

AC: What were the greatest obstacles that Operation Lakewatch faced?

TJM: I don’t know, there weren’t obstacles, I guess getting funding…we were able in, one way or another to get funding; I don’t remember any crisis on the funding. So we did it on our own the first two years, so our expenses, first year was just John Berzins, second year, we had administrative help, another person, what’s her name, Leslie…?

AC: Wilson?

TJM: Well anyway, but the third year we farmed it out to the school of public health. University of Illinois. I think that budget may have been in the area of 25000 dollars. But the first year, I’m sure, was $10,000 or less and the second year maybe $15,000 or another $5,000 or something…[says something i could not understand]

AC: Can you talk about other organizations that helped Operation Lakewatch that you partnered up with and what were their roles?

TJM: Well, Belmont Harbor Neighbors, I think, was a group that very much was involved. They have some beach there and they have the harbor there. So they were interested in the clean water aspects and that. But certainly the Lake Michigan Federation would have been directly or indirectly involved. Well I’m sure they were directly involved. We worked with them. Who else? Probably friends of the park, I’m sure and the Water Reclamation district. They supported our efforts. And certainly once that contamination from McCormick place was found they really took the ball and did a very thorough job in investigating that and taking care of the whole situation. And the City, probably, I don’t remember directly. We got into a little bit adversarial over the Chicago Fest but I think they recognized the problem that they couldn’t continue doing it. If Chicago Fest, now Taste of Chicago, were to continue then they needed a different venue…a different place to hold it.

AC: Can you talk a little about; we talked about it offline, "The Fox", who he was, what he did, and his relation to Operation Lakewatch?

TJM: "The Fox" was a, today we’d call an Environmental Terrorist, but somebody who took environmental activism to the extreme, Earth first I don’t know if that makes…But he lived west of Chicago, along the Fox River. In the Elgin area and there was significant contamination going on in the Fox River and he plugged drain pipes and things like that. He took some sludge from an outfall from an illegal outfall downtown and poured it on the desks of some of the executives down there and got allot of attention for it. Mike Royko a regular columnist, for then the Chicago daily news, was one of his promoters. So he got allot of attention for doing things that should have been done. Doing illegal things and plugging up illegal outfalls and things like that. So anyways he was a local hero and on one of our events, involving contamination in Belmont harbor he signed a pier one day "signed by The Fox" supporting the efforts there, so that was interesting…

AC: Did they ever find out his identity?

TJM: Yes, well people in the know knew who he was in those days but he died now about two years ago and it came out then and there were some big right ups about it. He was one of those things…the police knew who he was but they really couldn’t prosecute him because he had such a following. What he was doing was wrong but he was doing them for the right reasons. I know there’s a better term for that but i can’t think of it. So I think they just worked out a deal, you stop doing what you’re doing and we won’t prosecute you any further, so it was a wink and a nod, you know, Chicago politics.

AC: What state do you think Lake Michigan would be in had Operation Lakewatch never came into being?

TJM: What we were finding, with probably the exception of McCormick Place thing and encouraging the city to move Chicago Fest off Navy Pier. The contamination on the lakefront is probably mostly from animals, from birds and things like that. We are very fortunate here. There are no sewage outfalls in the lake within forty miles of Chicago. East Chicago and the South side..Indiana harbor in the south and Racine on the north, I think, are the closest sewage outfalls so there’s really no source other than users of the lakefront including birds and fish and things like that. I think we encouraged the Park District to get more pro active on the harbors. There were regulations against boaters discharging their sewage holding tanks into the lake. Probably some of them didn’t follow that but also we found that many of these pump out stations weren’t working, were not operating, so the boats really couldn’t do that. So I think we improved , we were the catalyst to get the Park District and the City and the Water Reclamation District to do their jobs, to do what they should have been doing. So it was a real good Citizens activism thing, I think.

AC: Any strongest memory, or any, like, favorite aspect of Operation Lakewatch that you want to elaborate on?

TJM: [laughs; Ya, I don’t know. The legal situation arose, we did put up signs just warning the people that the harbors might be contaminated and they shouldn’t swim in the harbors, well you’re not supposed to swim in the harbors, so it was a motherhood sign. But the Chicago Park District took us, got an injunction against us putting up the sign, and that was a first amendment case thing and that got a lot of attention and a lot of interest from lawyers willing to defend us. Lawyers never felt that they ever would be able to litigate a first amendment case and here was one that was, from the lawyers point-of-view, it was cut and dry, was something that they couldn’t do. It took three months to settle it, but so in affect it brought that issue, the first amendment, free speech, got some attention to that…

AC: I think that’s it.

TJM: Ok.

AC: Thanks for the Interview

TJM: Well thank you, appreciate it.