Former Assistant United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York John M. Burns III lectured on "Can We Clean Our Waters?" After several successful prosecutions for pollution of the Hudson River and just as he was preparing two suits against a General Motors plant at Tarrytown, NY, Burns was fired for what his superiors called his “overenthusiastic” pursuit of polluters.

By the time of his Vassar talk Burns discovered the 1899 Refuse Act requiring permits to discharge wastes into navigable waters, thus provoking  President Nixon to order the Army Corps of Engineers to issue 40,000 such permits by July.  Beginning to organize citizen committees along the Hudson, Burns told TIME magazine, “Nixon’s permit program knocks the teeth out of water-pollution enforcement throughout the country.  In effect, the permits will be veritable licenses to pollute.”