from Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
F. Kennedy Jr. is the chief prosecuting attorney for Hudson
Riverkeeper, an advocacy group that monitors the Hudson River
ecosystem and challenges polluters, using both legal and grassroots
campaigns. He also serves as senior attorney for the Natural
Resources Defense Council and as president of the Waterkeeper
Alliance, a grassroots environmental organization with local
chapters throughout the world.
Mr. Kennedy is a clinical professor and
supervising attorney at the Environmental Litigation Clinic
at Pace University School of Law in White Plains, New York,
and has served as assistant district attorney in New York
City. The New York City Watershed Agreement, which he negotiated
on behalf of environmentalists and the city's watershed
consumers, is regarded as an international model in stakeholder
consensus negotiations and sustainable development. Mr.
Kennedy has also published several books, including
Riverkeepers: Two Activists Fight to Reclaim Our Environment
as a Basic Human Right
with John Cronin (Scribner, 1999).
A chronic complaint of individual citizens
is that "Big Money" runs the world. In April 2004, Robert
F. Kennedy Jr. gave a speech in which he discussed the need
to protect our environment because it is, in fact, "the
infrastructure of our communities." In that speech, he discussed
the devastating effects of corporate monied interests when
those interests are not balanced by a concern for our communities,
our natural environment, and our future as a society. The
following excerpt from that speech is an account of one
community whose people joined together to prevail against
the large corporate interests that were seriously harming
their way of life.
The people who started Riverkeeper back
in the 1960s were not your prototypical tweed-jacketed,
pipesmoking environmentalists. They were not affluent. Nor
were they trying to preserve distant wilderness areas in
the Rockies or Montana. They were factory workers, laborers,
electricians. A large percentage of them made some part
of their living either fishing or crabbing.
Many of the families that I represent have
been fishing the Hudson River continuously since Dutch colonial
times. They use the same fishing methods that were taught
to their ancestors by the Algonquin Indians. One of the
enclaves of the Hudson fishery is Crotonville, which is
30 miles north of New York City on the east bank of the
river. The people who lived in Crotonville in 1966 had little
expectation that they'd ever see Yosemite or Yellowstone
or the other national parks. To them, "the environment"
was their backyard. It was the bathing beaches and the fishing
holes of the Hudson River. Richie Garrett, the first president
of the Hudson Riverkeeper, used to say about the Hudson:
"Its our Riviera. It's our Monte Carlo."
In 1966 Penn Central Railroad began
been doing environmental advocacy for years and I
don't think environmentalism should be partisan. Environmental
advocacy is not about protecting the fishes and the
birds for their own sake; it's about recognizing that
nature is the infrastructure of our communities. The
air we breathe, the water we drink, and the wildlife
and the landscapes that enrich us are all part of
that infrastructure. We have obligations-as a generation,
as a civilization, and as a nation-to create communities
for our children that provide them with the same opportunities
for dignity and enrichment that our parents gave us.
If we want to meet those obligations, we have to start
by protecting our environmental infrastructure because
it provides the context for our communities."
-Robert F. Kennedy Jr. at Omega Institute's Living
a Fearless Life Conference, April 2, 2004.
oil from a four-and-a-half-foot pipe in New York's Croton-Harmon
rail yard. The oil went up the river on the tides; it blackened
the beaches and made the shad taste like diesel, so people
could no longer eat the fish. The people of Crotonville came
together in the only public building in town, the American
Legion Hall, to see what they could do about it.
was a very patriotic community. A lot of these people were
combat veterans from WWII and the Korean War. They weren't
radicals and militants-they were people whose patriotism
was rooted in the bedrock of our country. But that night
they started talking about violence, because they saw something
that they thought they owned-the abundant fisheries and
the purity of the Hudson's waters-being robbed from them
by large corporate entities over which they had no control.
had already been to the government agencies that are supposed
to protect Americans from pollution and were given the cold
shoulder by all of them. Richie Garrett made 27 visits to
one office, begging the government to do its duty and shut
down the Penn Central pipe. He was finally told in exasperation,
"These [the Penn Central board of directors] are important
people. We can't treat them that way." In other words, we
can't force them to obey the law.
of 1966, almost everyone in Crotonville had come to the
conclusion that the government was in cahoots with the polluters
and that the only way to reclaim the river was to confront
the polluters directly. Somebody suggested putting a match
to the oil slick coming out of the Penn Central pipe to
burn up the pipe. Someone else said they should roll a mattress
up and jam it up the pipe, so it would flood the rail yard
with its own waste. Another said they should float a raft
of dynamite into the intake of the India Point power plant,
which at the time was killing a million fish a day in its
then a Marine named Bob Boyle stood up. He was also the
outdoor editor of
he was a great fly fisherman and angler. He had written
an article for
about angling in
the Hudson; while researching the article,
Can Do It
"We need to be skeptical when we are told that we
can't control environmental problems. Compared to
other kinds of problems, environmental problems are
not only remarkably easy to solve, but solutions are
cheap-they pay for themselves. During the Clinton
administration, for every dollar invested in cleaning
up the environment, the economic return was seven
dollars. Solving environmental problems in fact has
remarkable qualities: it brings us together, we can
do it affordably, and it makes us feel good."
-Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club
come across an old navigational statute called the 1888 Rivers
and Harbors Act. It said that it was illegal to pollute any
waterway in the United States and that you had to pay a high
penalty if you got caught. There was also a bounty provision,
which said that anybody who turned in the polluter got to
keep half the fine. Boyle had sent a copy of this law over
to the libel lawyers at Time, Inc. and asked them if it was
still good. They replied that in 80 years that law had never
been enforced, but it was still on the books. That evening
Boyle stood up in front of all those men who were talking
about violence-300 of them, packed into the American Legion
Hall, some leaning against the rifle racks, some hanging from
the rafters-and he said, "We shouldn't be talking about breaking
the law. We should be talking about enforcing it."
night those people resolved that they were going to start
a group [then called the Hudson River Fishermen's Association,
later called Riverkeeper] and that they were going to track
down and prosecute every polluter on the Hudson. Eighteen
months later they collected the first bounty in United States
history using this nineteenth-century statute, and they
shut down the Penn Central pipe for good. They got to keep
$2,000-which, in Crotonville in 1968, was a huge amount
of money. There were two weeks of wild celebration in the
town. They used the money that was left over to go after
other polluters. In 1973, they collected the highest penalty
in U.S. history against a corporate polluter: $200,000 from
Anaconda Wire and Cable for dumping toxins into the Hudson
River at Hastings, New York.
used the money to construct a boat called
which still patrols the Hudson River today. In 1985, Hudson
Riverkeeper started a ground-breaking environmental litigation
clinic, where third-year law students, by a special court
order, are permitted to practice law under the supervision
of Riverkeeper's licensed attorneys. These students are
given four polluters to sue at the beginning of the semester.
Hudson Riverkeeper has brought more than 300 successful
legal actions against polluters, forcing them to spend more
than $2 billion on remediation of the river.
Hudson River was a national joke in 1966. Today, the Hudson
is an international model for ecosystem protection. The
miraculous resurrection of the Hudson has inspired the creation
of Riverkeepers throughout the world. In 1998, the Waterkeeper
Alliance.an umbrella organization of all the Riverkeepers,
Baykeepers, Soundkeepers, Creekkeepers, and Lakekeepers
in the world.was formed. There are now 120 Keepers on Earth.
There are Keepers in Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica, Belize,
Columbia, England, Czech Republic, and Australia. All are
grassroots, local groups. The Waterkeeper Alliance licenses
them to get started. (They have to get the license; a patrol
boat; a full-time, paid Keeper; and they have to be willing
to sue polluters.)
Waterkeepers aggressively fight for purer rivers and waterways
with the belief that cleaner water yields stronger communities.
They know that an investment in the environment is not a
diminishment of a nation's wealth; it an investment in a
country's vital infrastructure. They also know that if we
don't return to our children something that is roughly the
equivalent of what we received, they'll have the right to
ask us some really difficult questions. As the Lakota proverb
says, "We did not inherit this planet from our ancestors.
We borrow it from our children."
The New York Times
one-quarter of black children in Harlem have asthma;
that figure was double the figure researchers expected,
based on prior research.
More recently, it was reported that in some New York
neighborhoods, an even higher percentage of children
have asthma. We don't know why that is, but we do
know that one of the triggers for asthma is air particulates
and ozone, and we know that the largest source of
those materials in New York City is coming from 1,000
coal-burning plants in the Ohio valley that were supposed
to have been cleaned up ten years ago but today are
still discharging pollutants illegally. The Clinton
administration was criminally prosecuting 51 of those
plants. But those companies gave $48 million to the
Republican party and the Bush campaign in 2000, and
have given $58 million since then. The Bush administration
...[dropped] all of those cases and [changed] the
law, even though it's illegal to do that. We have
filed a lawsuit protesting that action. Eighteen thousand
people a year are dying in this country because of
the failure of power plants to comply with the law."
-Robert F. Kennedy Jr., adapted
from a speech at Omega Institute's Living a Fearless
Life Conference, April 2, 2004.
1 See "Study Finds Asthma
in 25% of Children in Central Harlem" by Richard
The New York Times
, April 19,
A 2000 study estimated
that 30,000 people die prematurely each year due
to particles released into the air from power plants.
Of these deaths, an estimated 18,000 could be prevented
if power plants were required to install modern
pollution controls. ("The Particulate- Related Health
Benefits of Reducing Power Plant Emissions," Abt
Associates, October 2000.)
Excerpted and adapted from Robert F. Kennedy Jr.'s keynote
speech at Omega Institute's Living a Fearless Life Conference,
April 2, 2004, with permission from Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
and Omega Institute.
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