Except for his name, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. started out in the law like a lot of people. As a young man, he decided to go to law school, and after earning his JD from the University of Virginia in 1982, he became a prosecutor. All well and good. But then he decided to veer off into a budding form of environmental law. He began suing on behalf of … a river. Specifically, the Hudson River. He helped popularize the strategy of appointing a guardian, or “Riverkeeper,” for a given body of water—a practice now used from the Hudson to the San Francisco Bay—then suing those who foul the waters.
Today, the 47-year-old Kennedy is the chief prosecuting attorney for the Hudson Riverkeeper, co-director of the Pace University Environmental Litigation Clinic, and senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. With the current president viewed by environmentalists as aggressively antigreen, Kennedy argues that now is a critical time for young attorneys to enter environmental law. His call to action and his passion for his own work (at press time, he had just begun serving a 30-day jail sentence for protesting the American bombing range at Vieques in Puerto Rico) have brought new energy to an old Kennedy ideal: the value of putting social service before self-interest.
JD Grade the Bush record on the environment.
RFK It’s worse than that of any president in a century. His visit to the Everglades last summer is a perfect example. He announced more than $200 million in aid, but that number represents a substantial cut from what the Everglades was supposed to get under the Clinton plan. Because we have a very docile press, they cover these things as if they were something good. But Bush’s announcement was a cut. It was an attack on the Everglades. In Texas, Bush had the worst environmental record of any governor in the country. Under his leadership, Texas had some of the highest levels of air pollution, toxic releases, and water pollution in the 50 states. His environmental commissioners came from the regulated industries. One of the heads of the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (the state environmental protection agency) was a 30-year executive of the Monsanto [chemical] Company. And Bush has brought the same philosophy to Capitol Hill. Look at his appointment of Christie Todd Whitman to the EPA. As governor of New Jersey, she cut the budget for the state’s Department of Environmental Protection by almost a third. The person she brought in to run DEP was a political hack from south Jersey. He essentially ended environmental enforcement in the state, and Whitman’s motto was “New Jersey is open for business.”
JD Has George W. Bush done anything at all that’s good for the environment?
RFK I wish there were something good to say, but there isn’t. Gale Norton, his Secretary of the Interior, is a joke. She has argued in front of the Supreme Court that the Endangered Species Act and the Surface Mining Act are unconstitutional. She doesn’t appear to believe in public lands. She seems to think they should all be privatized. Now she’s the principal enforcer of the Endangered Species Act and the Surface Mining Act and the principal trustee of more than 400 million acres of our nation’s public lands. Spencer Abraham, who is in charge of the Department of Energy, co-authored a bill when he was in Congress to dismantle the same department. And the lower-level officials being brought into the Cabinet departments are conservative ideologues in line with the Heritage Foundation and the Federalist Society, while the scientists are being pushed aside. The agencies are being systematically turned over to large corporations whose executives see antipollution laws as interfering with their profit-taking. Listen, the EPA’s budget was more than $7 billion under the Clinton administration—0.4 percent of the federal budget. Bush has proposed to cut that by half a billion, and he’s got at least another quarter of a billion in cuts in mind for the Interior Department.
JD One of Al Gore’s weaknesses as a presidential candidate was the perception that he was too green. How should a presidential nominee in 2004 describe his environmental platform?
RFK I disagree. Gore’s primary problem was that he was seen as someone who was not passionate about anything. If he’d spoken out more about the environment, he would have done a lot better. Polling I’ve seen has shown that Americans, both Republicans and Democrats, were worried about Bush’s environmental record in Texas, and I think if Gore had done a better job of getting that out before the public, he would have won the election. The environment is intertwined with every other important social issue. It’s the most important social issue.
JD How so?
RFK Poverty and race issues are inseparable from environmental issues. Look at where the toxic dumps go in this country. They always go into a black or Hispanic neighborhood. Blacks and Hispanics are far more likely to live in an environmentally contaminated community than whites. One of the largest toxic waste dumps in the country is in Emelle, Alabama, 93 percent black. One of the largest concentrations of toxic-waste dumps is in the South Side of Chicago. One of the most contaminated zip codes in California is East L.A.’s. The poor always bear the heaviest burden for environmental injury, whether it’s access to public lands or exposure to toxic chemicals, so this is a fundamental issue. It’s not just about protecting fish and birds for their own sake.
JD Grade Bill Clinton’s environmental record.
RFK His was a rearguard action that he fought against the Gingrich congresses—the 104th and 105th—which were two of the most anti-environmental congresses in American history. They tried to dismantle 30 years of environmental action. Clinton stood up to them, and ultimately they shut down the government. The government shutdown was because of environmental riders that the Republicans had attached to the Omnibus Budget Bill. Clinton said no to them, and they shut down the government. He stood up for us.
JD Say I’m a second-year law student. My best friend is at Skadden, Arps, making the big bucks while I’m working at a low-paying environmental law job. he says to me, “you’re a sucker.” How do I answer him?
RFK People have felt that way for ages. But there is a choice in life. You can make a big pile of money for yourself, or you can spend your life being of service to others. My own experience and my observation of others have taught me that being of service is a more worthwhile way to spend your life. If what you seek is peace of mind and happiness, then that’s the path. People have different philosophies, and I don’t begrudge them that. I make choices in order to look at myself in the mirror and have some peace of mind.
JD If I were a law student interested in getting into environmental law, what’s the most effective kind of work I could do next summer?
RFK You could come and work for us at the Pace University Environmental Litigation Clinic in White Plains, New York. We give each student four polluters to sue, then they have the summer to litigate against polluters on the Hudson or some other waterway. We also have volunteer jobs every summer.
JD Where did the Riverkeeper idea come from?
RFK The first Riverkeeper was founded on the Hudson in 1966 by a blue-collar coalition of commercial and recreational fishermen. Most were veterans of World War II and Korea who had worked on the Hudson as commercial fishermen. Their livelihoods were being destroyed by large polluters, mainly Penn Central Railroad, which was vomiting oil from a four-and-a-half-foot pipe. The shad tasted of diesel, so it couldn’t be sold at the Fulton Fish Market, in New York City. All these people, about 300 of them, got together in an American Legion hall, and someone suggested that they light a match to the oil slick to blow up the pipe. Someone else said that they should jam a mattress up the pipe and flood the rail yard with its own waste. Somebody else suggested they float a raft of dynamite into the intake of the Indian Point power plant, which at that time was killing a million fish a day on its intake screen, taking food off their families’ tables.
Then a former marine named Bob Boyle stood up. He was a writer for Sports Illustrated. He was a great fly fisherman, and two years before, he had written an article about angling on the Hudson. In researching the story, he’d come across an ancient navigational statute called the 1888 Rivers and Harbors Act, which made it illegal to pollute any waterway in the United States. There was also a bounty provision that said that anyone who turned in the polluter got to keep half of the fine. Boyle persuaded these people that instead of breaking the law, they should be enforcing it. The bounty provision had never been enforced—not a single time. These guys were the first ones to do it. They shut down the Penn Central pipeline 18 months later. They got $2,000, and they used that money to finance investigations into Ciba-Geigy, Anaconda Wire & Cable, and Exxon—some of the biggest corporations in America. They got a $200,000 bounty in one case, and they spent the money on a boat. In 1983, they hired a full-time riverkeeper—John Cronin, a former commercial fisherman. Later they hired me as the prosecutor, again using bounty money. Altogether, we’ve now fought more than 100 successful lawsuits against Hudson River polluters.
JD You’re a Kennedy; you could have practiced any kind of law in the world. What attracted you to the environment?
RFK I didn’t study it when I was in law school, but I was always interested in the environment. I became a prosecutor afterward, and around 1984 I decided I wanted to do something that was consistent with my values. I have spent a lot of time on the Hudson, catching fish and now investigating polluters and getting to know the river and the fishermen who are my clients. I love it. I love what I do.
JD What makes the environment so important to you?
RFK The environment is the best measure of how our democracy is working. It’s how we distribute the goods of the land. In the past, whenever we hit a depression in New York State and people were unemployed, they could always go down to the river and fish. It was the social safety net. You could always find fish in the river, and they belonged to the people. But now they are too dangerous to eat. The barge traffic on the upper river has been shut down because the shipping channels are too toxic. Women all along the upper Hudson are likely to have elevated levels of PCBs in their breast milk. Acres of beautiful shorefront property are off the tax rolls, robbed from the communities as a source of revenue or recreation. Virtually all of the commercial fishermen on the Hudson are out of work because, although the Hudson is loaded with fish, almost all of the fish are still loaded with General Electric’s PCBs and are too toxic to sell. Countless people living in the Hudson Valley have General Electric’s PCBs in their flesh and in their organs. That’s a theft. That’s an active theft. The fish and the waterways are owned by the people. Everybody has a right to use them. Nobody has a right to use them in a way that will diminish their use or enjoyment by others. It’s a kind of right that dates back to the Magna Carta. And General Electric has come in and stolen the fish from everybody in the state. We don’t own them now. We can’t use them. General Electric liquidated them for cash. They turned them into profit, and they left behind a giant mess. That’s a profound injustice.
JD is cleaning up a river a moral fight or an economic fight?
RFK Good environmental policy is always, 100 percent of the time, good economic policy. If we want to measure our economy, then it should be based on how it produces jobs and the dignity of those jobs over the generations. What the Bush administration is urging us to do is to treat the planet like a business in liquidation—to have a few years of pollution-based prosperity. But our children will pay for our joyride with denuded landscapes, poor health, and cleanup costs they won’t be able to afford. Environmental injury is a form of deficit spending.
JD How does one articulate the Kennedy tradition of public service to a generation that seems pleased with itself and with the prosperity that comes from pursuing self-interest?
RFK Our nation’s history is really a battle between two visions of this country. One of those visions is that America is a city on a hill, a model to the rest of the world for what human beings can accomplish if they work together and maintain their focus on a spiritual mission—trying to build communities. That idea really distinguished the European settlement of North America from the European conquest of Latin America, where the Europeans came as conquistadors driven by greed—to extract the minerals, to level the landscape, to subjugate the people, to enrich themselves, and then to move on. That very notion became prevalent in our country during the gold rush of 1849. That philosophy became the driving force behind the idea of Manifest Destiny and the driving force behind the robber barons of the 1880s and 1890s. Those two warring philosophies have provided the tension behind every major conflict in American history, from the Civil War to recent congressional elections. It can be felt in our own communities, at the planning board meetings when we have to decide whether to sell out to Wal-Mart for the easy money or to build a community that has dignity and maintain what our parents gave to us. And we have to fight that battle in our personal lives, as well. We each have to wake up in the morning and ask ourselves: Is this all about making my pile bigger? Am I going to be a gold digger? Or am I going to be somebody who has taken what God has given me and return it to my community? Is today going to be about me? Or is it going to be about giving back?
JD Will you ever run for political office?
RFK I considered running in the last Senate campaign in New York.
JD And in the future?
RFK We’ll see.