The grassroots environmental movement in Sussex County lost a friend July 15 when one of its most dedicated volunteers died suddenly. His wife, Marti, lost a soulmate.
Those who knew John Austin will miss his expertise and the countless hours he spent fighting for clean waterways.
“This work is critical,” said Maria Payan, consultant with the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project, who considered Austin her right-hand man. “He was so talented and brilliant and had such a broad background.”
Austin, 69, and Marti moved to Rehoboth Beach to retire in 2004 after 33 years as a chemical engineer with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He promptly put his science expertise to work as a member of the Citizens Advisory Committee for the Center for the Inland Bays, and later joined the CIB's Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee. Over those years, his outreach expanded to participation in the Inland Bays Foundation and Protecting Our Indian River; he also fought against poultry operations at the former Vlasic pickle plant near Millsboro and recent groundwater contamination by Mountaire Farms.
“He wasn't a bored retiree for long,” Marti said, announcing on July 17 Austin's sudden passing from a massive heart attack. Since then, she said, she has been buoyed by the outpouring of condolences from friends and loved ones.
“Reading how much he was respected and loved will help me survive the shock of losing my best friend so suddenly,” she said.
Marti described Austin as a loving, unselfish human being who thought of everyone else before himself. He was always the first to step up to help neighbors and friends when they needed it, she said. A gardener and bird enthusiast, Austin had proudly posted a prized photo he recently took of a reclusive green heron on a Lewes pond.
Former CIB volunteer Doug Parham was one of those expressing shock at Austin's sudden passing. The two met in 2006 and became fast friends, sharing an interest in saving the environment and a love of golf. Parham said he will miss his weekly golf partner and their outings together. “We had lunch recently, and when we left he had a great smile and was happy,” he said.
Over the years, he said, the two worked on several environmental initiatives. He said they first worked together opposing a power plant cooling process that killed aquatic life in Indian River. Although falling short of a state regulation to protect aquatic life, Parham said, the plant eventually closed some of the underwater turbines that had been destroying fish and other sea life. “John was very active throughout this. Even though we lost the battle, we won the war,” he said.
Next, Parham said, Austin put his energy into abating a coal ash pile placed on Burton's Island by a former coal energy plant. He said Austin's sharp analysis and research forced the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control to test the waters for arsenic. “We pushed them to do that,” he said.
Austin later supported a wind farm proposal off the Delaware coast, and offered expert testimony for discharge permit violations.
“You need people like John who know what the hell they're talking about,” Parham said. “He was a dedicated scientist. He got so frustrated, but he did make a difference.”
Although Parham had stepped away from environmental activism, he said, Austin was busier than ever.
Activist Payan said she met Austin in 2013 when the two worked together for the Protecting Our Indian River group. She said they continued to work together up until the very end.
On Saturday night, Payan said, Austin emailed her a copy of a Powerpoint presentation he planned to deliver Monday, July 16. The document was typical of Austin's meticulous attention to detail, she said.
“He had all the data – he left nothing out,” she said.
Austin was a master of creating charts and graphs, weaving government statistics into his documents to show elevated levels of nitrogen, phosphorous and other contaminants in Sussex County groundwater. In February, he presented a detailed report to the Cape Gazette showing elevated levels of nitrates in Milton groundwater, at wells near the Sussex County Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant and similar elevated levels near the Mountaire poultry plant.
Austin was adamant that Sussex County residents should not drink untreated well water. He also said the results of water testing should be disclosed to homebuyers before they purchase a home.
With a heavy heart, Payan said, she delivered his last Powerpoint presentation to several community groups, knowing he would have wanted her to do so.
“It was so special to me, and I was so nervous,” she said. “We struggled through it. No one could explain the work the way he could.”
Payan said she feels blessed to have met someone like Austin.
“There are going to be so many lives that he touched who will miss him,” she said. “To meet one person like that in your lifetime is incredible. There will never be another John.”
Nobody knows that more than his wife, Marti. She said she will forever miss her soulmate.
“I was blessed to have this wonderful man in my life as long as I did,” she said. “I am so grateful for the environmental community here in Delaware who welcomed him into their midst and quickly learned to appreciate this wonderful, brilliant man. He in return embraced others who were focused on the same goal of making a positive difference in the lives of us living in the First State.”