RFK Jr. – in his own words

[The following article, in edited form, appears in the winter 2002 issue of Conservation Matters, the quarterly magazine of the Boston-based Conservation Law Foundation. Here is the original, uncut version.]

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., 48, is the second son of the former Attorney General and U.S. Senator. He was fourteen when his father was assassinated while running for the presidency in 1968. Today, Bobby – as everyone calls him – serves as President of the Waterkeeper Alliance, an international coalition of grassroots groups devoted to protecting our waterways from polluters; as co-director of the Pace University Environmental Litigation Clinic in White Plains, New York; and as a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. He was instrumental in forging a landmark Watershed Agreement to protect New York City’s water supply. A licensed master falconer, an outdoorsman who enjoys kayaking, skiing and whitewater paddling, Kennedy is the father of six children. Widely regarded as America’s leading environmental crusader, Kennedy recently spoke at length on a wide range of issues with writer Dick Russell. Robert Kennedy, Jr., in his own words:

As far back as I can remember, I was drawn to nature. My father brought us to some of the most beautiful and wildest places in America, to go mountaineering and whitewater rafting. He understood these were part of the public trust, a critical part of America’s legacy – that the source of our values and our virtues and our character as a people was the American wilderness, and we had an obligation to protect it for the next generations.

If you look at the statements by my father and my uncle Jack, both of them consistently were strong environmentalists. President Kennedy came down against his own Department of Agriculture to side with Rachel Carson, when USDA and the Farm Bureau were trying to discredit her. He appointed a special commission to independently investigate the claims in Silent Spring, and that commission in 1962 produced a report that completely vindicated Rachel Carson and criticized the USDA. Then my uncle Jack worked with [Senator] Gaylord Nelson on the conception for the first Earth Day. This was in 1963.

My father took a trip up the Hudson River in 1965, and said this was a disgrace to our country and we had to clean it up. The next year, a coalition of commercial and recreational fishermen mobilized to rescue the Hudson from its polluters. That was the beginning of the Waterkeeper concept. I got involved with the Hudson River Fishermen’s Association in 1984. I already had a law degree, but I went back to night school at Pace University and got a Master’s degree in environmental law, so I could be a better advocate for the Association. When I graduated, some of the professors came to me and said, We are interested in starting a litigation clinic and would you like to run it? I said I’d do it on one condition, that this could happen in conjunction with the Hudson Riverkeeper as the client.

It’s worked out very well. On the Hudson we’ve won over 300 successful legal actions and we’ve forced polluters to spend around $3 billion in remediation. Today, the Hudson River is an international model for ecosystem protection. And our Waterkeeper Alliance now has 99 programs located across the country and even in Mexico and Central America. It’s really a kind of environmental “neighborhood watch” program, a citizen’s patrol to protect communities and the waters they depend on. Most Waterkeepers use a boat, ranging in size from canoes to research vessels, to patrol their waterways.

We have more than 300 applications to become part of our program. We don’t go out and recruit people, this is a grassroots, bottom-up organization. One of our first programs, and a very successful one, has been the Casco Baykeeper in Maine. In the late 1980s, this bay was on the brink of becoming one of the most polluted water bodies in New England. The Friends of Casco Bay, along with their tenacious Baykeeper Joe Payne, have managed to substantially reduce the flow of sewage, toxic chemicals, and industrial discharges. Our Long Island Soundkeeper, based out of Norwalk, Connecticut, recently initiated a hatchery program to restore an oyster population that was nearly wiped out by the MSX parasite. In Massachusetts, we have Waterkeepers now for Cape Cod and Buzzards Bay. One of the biggest fights at the moment is in the backyard of the Narragansett Baykeeper. Pacific Gas &Electric’s Brayton Point Station in Somerset, Massachusetts, is the largest, dirtiest power plant in the region. It’s been responsible for an 87 percent reduction in fish species in the Mount Hope Bay estuary, and this summer the EPA finally proposed some new, stricter limits on the plant’s water pollution discharges.

Another Waterkeeper program, through the Conservation Law Foundation, has just been approved for Lake Champlain. That’s been a really important priority for us. For one thing, it’s one of the places in the United States where there’s a very strong sense of community and commitment to sustainability. Vermont has probably the best environmental ethic of any state in the country. And CLF is the most effective environmental organization in New England. CLF pioneered the litigious approach to enforcement and environmental protection that is such a strong component of the Waterkeeper philosophy. We have strong environmental laws in this country, but they’re not enforced. Unfortunately, too often powerful polluters dominate state political landscapes where there isn’t the political will to go after them. So it’s up to us, the people who live in those communities, to force that to happen.

The environmental movement got its power from the grassroots when 20 million Americans came out on the street in 1970 – the largest public demonstration in United States history – and demanded that our political leaders return the environmental rights that had been taken from our people. We passed 28 major environmental laws in the next 10 years. But with its success, the movement lost touch with its grassroots. Instead of hiring community organizers, the big environmental groups began hiring technocrats – people who were economists and scientists – and concentrating inside the beltway. Then along came Newt Gingrich, who had discovered the power of the grassroots and of the parable. He started talking about the poor farmer who’d thrown a little bit of sand in a ditch and gotten hauled away for violating wetlands regulations. Of course that stuff never happened, but there was this illusion that the little guy was being stomped on by environmental laws. And the environmentalists could not produce their own parables. We had lost touch with the stories like Three Mile Island and Love Canal and the Santa Barbara oil spill, all the stories that our power had derived from in the Seventies.

In 1995, the fishermen I represented asked me to go to Capitol Hill and fight the proposals by the Gingrich Congress. When the Republicans would start talking to me about the poor farmer who couldn’t fill his wetland, I could talk right back to them about the thousand fishermen who are part of a 350-year tradition but are out hanging sheetrock and pouring asphalt because a large corporation over whom they had no control had stolen the Hudson River from them. Those stories really have political legs. I think the environmental movement understands now that it can never afford to get away from its grassroots, that this movement is about people.

Our battles are really picked by the Waterkeepers, but there are certain criteria that appeal to me – including when there’s an important resource being destroyed, when there are clear civil rights and human rights violations, where the pollution is an attack on democracy. It always is, in one form or another, but in some cases it’s more egregious. Within each industry, you usually find good guys and bad guys. It’s much better for me to find somebody who’s truly corrupt, evil, where there’s no ambiguity.

The way I see it, that’s what we’re up against with today’s corporate hog industry. This is one of our biggest current fights. The huge integrators are taking over hog production all over the country, they’ve pretty much put the independent family farmers out of business. The pork is being produced in factories, and it’s being produced illegally. They cannot produce a pork chop or a slab of bacon cheaper or more efficiently than a traditional farmer unless they break the law, unless they dump their pollution into a waterway. A hog produces ten times the amount of waste as a human being. So a factory with 50,000 hogs is creating the same amount of waste as a city of half-a-million people. But these factories don’t have to treat their sewage. What these corporations do is locate in rural areas where they can easily dominate the state political landscapes, to escape compliance with environmental laws.

Smithfield Foods is operating in 36 states now. In North Carolina, there were 27,000 hog producers 15 years ago, and today there are none. Instead there are 2,200 factories, and 1,600 are owned by this one company, Smithfield. The same is now true in Iowa and elsewhere. We’re asking them, first, to eliminate the lagoon-and-spray field systems that are the source of so much pollution. Also to eliminate the use of sub-therapeutic antibiotics, and to eliminate gestation crates. That’s one of the unspeakably cruel practices they have, where they lock the sows into standing in one position, unable to move for months at a time.

The industry funds a guy named Trent Loos, who set up a group they call Truthkeepers. This fellow was indicted earlier this year for fraud and cattle rustling in South Dakota and Nebraska. His mission was to follow me around and to try to discredit me, but also to intimidate me. He shows up at speeches and press conferences I give, sitting in the front row. He records me, and then he prints distortions or outright misrepresentations of my statements. Sometimes he mumbles menacing comments. Once when I was in Iowa, he came up to me and whispered, “I’m your worst nightmare.” He waits for me in dark parking lots on my way home. He asks if I’d like to take a ride with him in his car, those kind of things. Which I don’t find intimidating, but that’s clearly his purpose.

Well, I’ve been shadowed before. And we’ve been offered bribes by polluters. But that’s spice-of-life stuff. In the summer of 2001, I was serving a 30-day jail sentence in Puerto Rico when my son Aidan was born. In my first act of civil disobedience, I’d been convicted of trespassing on the island of Vieques, a rainforest the U.S. Navy has turned into a bombing range. This is an island where there are 10,000 American citizens, with the highest rates of cancer and infant mortality in the Caribbean, because the Navy has been saturating Vieques for years with thousands of pounds of ordnance that eventually exceeded the explosive power of the Hiroshima bomb. There’s no geological or strategic reason that the Navy chose Vieques – there are 2,000 miles of potential bombsites much more convenient to the fleet – the only reason is political. This is the only place where you could bomb American citizens, and they don’t have a Congressman representing them. Nobody to call the admirals to Capitol Hill and say, Why are all my people getting sick? I come from a naval family and I love the Navy, but ultimately this was an attack on democracy. It was the worst part of Navy tradition: the bullying of indigenous people and suppression of democracy.

But you know what? Doing jail time there was like a vacation for me. It was 30 days when I got to play basketball, and share meals with some really interesting people. Of the 140 people in my cellblock, 60 of them were political prisoners from Vieques. I was only allowed ten minutes on the phone every day. So there was no outside intrusion, nobody asking me for a decision. It was like a Catholic religious retreat. Incredibly relaxing, fun, and spiritually fortifying. I got to read books that had been sitting on my shelf for fifteen years. Biographies of Napoleon, and Buddha, and St. Augustine. It was a gift. If I could do it once a year for a month, I probably would – but my wife would kill me.

You know, the principal issue that governed my father’s life, I think, was civil rights. And I believe there’s no more critical civil rights issue than environmental protection. If you look at environmental degradation, access to public lands, toxic waste – all of those burdens fall heaviest on the shoulders of the poor and minorities in this country. Four out of every five toxic waste dumps in America are in a black neighborhood. The largest is in Emmelle, Alabama, which is 85% black. The highest concentration of toxic waste is the South Side of Chicago. East L.A. is the most contaminated zip code in California. I was recently on the Navajo reservation in Arizona, where the youth have 17 times the rate of sexual organ cancer as other Americans, because of the thousands of tons of toxic uranium tailings that have been dumped on their land. Probably the biggest health care crisis we have in this country is the 44% of African American youth who suffer lead poisoning, which causes mental retardation along with a lot of other neural damages, loss of IQ. And there are 150,000 Hispanic farm workers who are poisoned by pesticides every year.

So all of the communities my father was deeply interested in are communities where the principal burden they are facing today is not violence in the ghetto. There are more people now dying of brain tumors in American ghettoes than there are of bullets. These are civil rights issues. For most Americans, the greatest piece of wealth they have is fresh air, clean water, enriching places to bring their children. Those are public trust assets, and they’re being robbed from Americans by large corporations and their endentured servants in the political process.

What’s going on right now with the Bush Administration is the worst assault in history on our environment. I lived through the Reagan years, through Watt and Gingrich, and nothing has ever been as bad as this. These people have such narrow minds and are so filled with fear, and really have no faith in our country. Industry gave them $300 million to win the last presidential election, and you and I and our children are going to pay them back a hundred times.

Using what happened on September 11th to push forward their agenda is the most cynical thing I’ve seen in American history. Every time there’s any kind of crisis in this country, the Bush Administration sees it as an opportunity to attack the environment. When we had the energy crisis in California, the Republicans said it’s the environmentalists’ fault – we now know it was Enron’s manipulations – and that the solution was to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, even though California doesn’t get its power from oil. When we had the forest fires in Arizona, they said it’s the environmentalists’ fault and the solution is to hand the national forests over to the big logging industry. Because of course if you cut down all the trees, there’s not gonna be any forest fires. When we had September 11th, the solution is to drill in our national parks and wildlife refuges. They’re using these situations to enrich their contributors.

The White House has created a commission whose purpose is to figure out ways to dismantle the National Environmental Policy Act. On the Clean Water Act, they’re trying first of all to end protection for small wetlands. Another move is to allow mountaintop mining. For the first time since 1970, the dumping of garbage into waterways would now be legal. Not just mountaintop mining, but anybody who’s got a waste product can get a permit to do this. The Clean Water Act was supposed to eliminate all discharge of pollutants by 1980. We’re not even close, the waters are now becoming more polluted, not less.

The politics behind the original Clean Air Act was: You had a lot of coal-burning power plants causing terrible problems. Congress said, that’s not legal and we’re going to force you all to find new technologies. But we’re not going to shut you down overnight, because that would cause economic disruption, we’re going to ask you to phase out. If somebody made major repairs or changes in the factory, they’d have to obey new source performance standards that require the elimination of most of the pollutants. Since then, we’ve found new technologies like these high-efficiency gas turbines that produce almost no pollutants and use almost no water. We have 22 of these plants coming on-line for the Hudson Valley and New York. That’s what we should be doing everywhere.

What we were supposed to do was simultaneously eliminate the existing coal-burning plants that are destroying our waterways, causing acid rain, contaminating our children with mercury. In Connecticut, every single freshwater fish in the state now has an advisory against eating it – because of mercury from coal-burning power plants in the Ohio Valley that were supposed to be phased out. What the Bush Administration has now done is said, We’re not going to force you to change the old plants. Most of these plants are over 50 years old and they’re going to be able to operate forever under the Bush plan. This basically guts the Clean Air Act.

These same new high-efficiency gas turbine plants I’ve mentioned will replace, within 24 months, 100% what’s being generated by the Indian Point nuclear power plant. There is no power plant in the country that is more vulnerable, or a more attractive target for terrorists, than Indian Point. It is 24 miles north of New York City, and within the 50-mile “kill zone” if a meltdown occurred, there are 21 million people. A week after September 11th, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission admitted that nobody knows whether or not a large commercial aircraft could break through the containment dome. Incidentally, Indian Point has the worst safety record of any nuclear plant in the United States. I think it should be closed down immediately.

Our big problem is getting the message out. If the American people – Republicans and Democrats – hear the message, we win on the merits. The trouble is, industry has all the money and they have a very, very sophisticated public relations effort, including spending millions of dollars to create these phony think-tanks in Washington, D.C. They fill them up with these “biostitutes,” these marginalized scientists who make pronouncements that global warming doesn’t exist and the ozone hole is a myth and DDT is good for you and there’s plenty of spotted owls in the forest and plenty of whales in the ocean to kill, the oil industry is good for the fishes and the air, etcetera. They create these front groups – we call them “Astroturf groups” – phony grassroots groups that give politicians (who want to do the industry bidding anyway) the cover to go ahead by saying, “Oh yeah, the people want this done.” They’re so sophisticated that most Americans don’t even know where these messages are coming from.

Would I run for political office? I’ve considered it in the past. But, you know, really I just live my life one day at a time, trying to be effective doing what I’m doing. I have benefits from this lifestyle, that I can hang out with my family and be a good father to them, and I think that would be more of a challenge if I ran for political office. But maybe at some point I get so angry about the way our politicians behave that I would make another choice.

What I seek to impart to my students is, I guess, the same thing I try to teach my own kids – to instill them with noble thoughts. Which is, I think, the principal objective of parenthood, to make them feel like they can be heroes. And that the object of life is to transcend narrow self-interest, and to give your life and spend your resources on behalf of the community, in service to others. That’s the key to personal happiness and fulfillment.

You work as hard as you can for the right thing, and then let God be in charge of the results. My job is to be able to get to the end of my life and be able to look at myself in the mirror and say that I spent my short time on this planet trying to make it a better place for my children. I have to look my children in the eye. And I’m gonna be able to do that. Because I know I’m never gonna sell out, and that I’m going to spend my life fighting as hard as I can, and that I’m gonna die with my boots on. That’s really all I care about.

We still have time to preserve a planet for our children that provides at least some of the opportunities for dignity and enrichment as those our parents gave us. That is our mission.