Legal eagle: Bobby Kennedy, Jr. fights for the environment and for his kids’ future

It was mid-afternoon inside Aloysius Hall, on the campus of the Pace University Environmental Litigation Clinic in White Plains, New York. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who founded the clinic in 1986, sat behind a “judge’s bench” with co-director Karl Coplan. Across the room, 10 third-year law students were taking turns at a podium, practicing their oral arguments for a forthcoming case. On behalf of Riverkeeper, Inc., and four fishermen’s organizations, the clinic was suing New York City for discharging highly turbid water into a world-renowned Catskill trout Stream, Esopus Creek, for nearly four years without a required federal permit under the Clean Water Act.

At 49, Bobby (as he prefers to be called) looks uncannily like his father, the former Attorney General and U.S. Senator who was assassinated during his 1968 campaign for the presidency. Now his penetrating blue eyes focused on a female student as she concluded her argument. “Your presentation was great,” he told her. “Great eye contact, using your hands–you didn’t seem to be reading your notes.” He addressed the need to paint a picture to the judge of the poor design of the intake pipe.

With the next student, Bobby started play-acting devil’s advocate, firing questions and posing hypothetical situations to him. “Doesn’t a government agency have the right to make the calculation that bringing water to children and the elderly is more important than a trout?” The student, John Paul, responded eloquently, discussing a minimal cost to ratepayers if the environmental regulations were followed. Instructor Coplan started to respond, “Now if you can do that again in front of a judge …” when Bobby interjected: “Then we won’t gel sued for malpractice.” The class burst out laughing.

In fact, after four clinic students (including Paul) went on to conduct most of the arguments before a U.S. District Court last January, Judge Frederick Scullin would hand down the highest penalty ever awarded in a citizen’s suit against a municipality ($5.7 million), as well as order New York City to finally obtain a discharge permit, it was a great victory for the Pace team of student litigators, which has won 300-some legal actions and forced polluters to spend around $3 billion in cleanup efforts over the past 17 years.

But this latest decision was still a ways off, as the two hour class ended and Bobby Kennedy, Jr., walked back to his office a couple of buildings away. The outer entryway is dominated by a fish-filled aquarium, where he pointed out a rare Hudson sturgeon. His rather spartan office is at the end of a long hallway pasta long mural of the river’s history that Bobby designed. Inside, a 1967 photograph of his father during a Scenic Hudson Preservation Tour is framed on the wall alongside some 19th-century nature prints.

Many Roles

In addition to his professorial role and his own law practice, Kennedy serves as president of the Waterkeeper Alliance–an international coalition that now numbers 99 grassroots groups–and as a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). He’s also co-author of a best-selling book, The Riverkeepers, writes op-ed columns for the New York Times and other major newspapers, and speaks to large audiences all across the country.

In recent years, Kennedy has emerged as one of America’s most charismatic environmental activists. Not only in his own backyard, where he was instrumental in forging the 1995 Watershed Agreement to protect New York City’s water supply, but in working with indigenous tribes in Latin America and Canada to protect their traditional lands. He’s also an avid outdoorsman–a master falconer, kayaker, skier, sailor and fisherman who’s led white water rafting expeditions down several relatively unexplored rivers in South America and Canada.

“I learned very early Bobby’s love for nature and animals,” recalls author Jack Newfield. “I first met him in 1967, when I was writing a book about his father. Bobby was 13 years old and had a menagerie in the house. It was actually the morning of his father’s first big speech against the Vietnam War on the Senate floor. Young Bobby had a kotamundi that had bitten his mother, Ethel, on the leg. So Senator Kennedy had to tend to the wounds, making him late to give his speech.

“Bobby has a deep intellectual, philosophical and emotional sensibility,” Newfield says. “He has not just a lawyer’s intelligence, but an artist’s–the novelist’s perceptions, the poet’s understanding. I think he sees things like his father did, in au unusually profound way that cuts to the core of any issue or problem.”

Battling Hog Factories

This particular day at 5 p.m., Bobby had a Conference call on an issue he’s become impassioned about–corporate hog farming. The campaign, which now involves a number of ongoing legal actions, began locally like most of his efforts–in this case when Rick Dove, a Riverkeeper in North Carolina, sounded the alarm. “Two decades ago, there were 27,000 family hog farmers in North Carolina,” Bobby explained. “They’ve been replaced by nearly 3,000 hog factories, mostly owned or indentured to a single multinational corporation, Smithfield Foods, which now operates in 36 states.

“A factory with 50,000 hogs produces the same amount of waste as a city of half-a-million people. But these big corporations locate in rural areas where they can easily dominate state political landscapes, and escape compliance with environmental laws. Most can’t produce a pork chop or a slab of bacon cheaper of more efficiently than a traditional farmer unless they break the law and dump their pollution on land or into a waterway or aquifer.

“In North Carolina, the industry has polluted hundreds of miles of once-pristine river systems, killed billions of fish, and subjected millions of farm animals to unspeakable, unnecessary cruelty. They lock the sows for months at a time into one position in these gestation crates. I mean, they can’t even turn around! At the same time, this industry has drastically diminished property values, shattered rural economies, turned neighbor against neighbor and put thousands of fishers and family farmers out of business.”

Today’s conference call focused around the McDonald’s fast-food chain. The biggest pork purchaser in the world, about 90 percent of that pork comes from Smithfield Foods. The hope is that McDonald’s will start exerting pressure on the supplier to, as Kennedy put it, “use more humane and less environmentally damaging methods of production.”

After a half-hour he signed off, saying, “Gotta go, my kids are waiting.” It’s about a 20-minute drive in his Plymouth Voyager to the home in Mount Kisco where Bobby lives with his wife, Mary, and their four children. Out back of the house, oak, hemlock and cedar trees crown a path toward a 30-acre lake stocked with largemouth bass, yellow perch, pumpkinseed sunfish, and more.

Bobby hoisted his one-year-old son, Aidan, into a backpack and went to transfer two pet hawks from their outdoor weathering perch to an indoor mews. At his father’s prompting, the little boy began to mimic the birds’ cries. “He doesn’t talk yet, but he imitates all the animals,” Bobby explained. Two peacocks wandering the yard paused to observe the ritual.

Over dinner, Bobby asked five-year-old Finbar to tell a guest what happened on their recent trip to Canada–when their float plane happened to crash into a lake. Finbar preferred to remember how he received “freckles” from the bites of black flies.

Dinner over, having given Aidan a bath and with Mary having put the other children into bed, Bobby settled into what he calls his “junk room.” The skin of an anaconda stretches across most of the ceiling. In a glass tank reside a couple of live alligators. Amid displays of animal bones found on his travels, there is a collection of masks and a pair of handmade doeskin beaded gloves, gifts to Bobby from various Native American tribes.

An Early Love

“As far back as I can remember, I was drawn to nature,” Bobby was saying. “My father brought us to some of the most beautiful and wildest places in America. He taught me that wilderness was the source of our values and our virtues and our character as a people, and that we had an obligation to protect it for the next generations.”

Leaning forward in his chair, he reflected for a moment and then continued: “But the principal issue that carne to govern 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, and probably the biggest health care crisis we have is the 44 percent of African-American youth who suffer the effects of lead poisoning. I recently visited a Navajo reservation in Arizona where because of thousands of tons of toxic uranium tailings that have been dumped on their land, the youth have 17 times the rate of sexual organ cancer as other Americans. 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.”

Kennedy has not been afraid to put himself on the line for his beliefs. He became involved in 2000 with a group of local activists seeking to end the U.S. Navy’s use of the Puerto Rican island of Vieques as a bombing range. The results of the Navy’s decades-long saturation campaign had brought about the highest rates of cancer and infant mortality anywhere in the Caribbean. To Bobby, the people’s lack of recourse–despite being a U.S. territory, they’re not represented in Congress–was intolerable. “I come from a Naval family but this was the worst part of Navy tradition–the bullying of indigenous people and suppression of democracy.”

So, in his first act of civil disobedience, Kennedy was arrested for trespassing on Vieques and ended up sentenced to 30 days in a Puerto Rican jail. That’s where he was, in fact, when Aidan was born. Asked whether this experience transformed him in any way, Bobby smiled and replied: “You know what? Doing time there was really like a vacation for me. I got to play basketball and share meals with some fascinating people. Of the 140 in my cellblock, 60 of them were political prisoners from Vieques. I was only allowed 10 minutes a day on the phone. So there was no outside intrusion, nobody asking me for a decision. I got to read biographies of Napoleon, Buddha, St. Augustine. If I could do this once a year for a month, I probably would–except my wife would kill me!”

Putting a spotlight on Vieques brought results. The Navy announced it would cease bombing the island permanently as of May 2003.

There is never time, however, to savor such victories for long. Kennedy is still litigating to make the Navy clean up the site. In the hog farm campaign, the Kennedy & Madonna firm is working cooperatively with 10 other attorneys’ offices around the U.S. Dan Estrin, one of Bobby’s two law partners, had been a student under him at Pace in the early 1990s. Because of the need to pay off his student loans, upon graduation Estrin had first accepted a job offer from a big firm in New York.

“It took me about two weeks to get up the nerve to even tell Bobby about it,” Estrin remembers. “Because Bobby is very, you know, the good guys against the bad guys. And generally it’s the bad guys who can afford to hire these big law firms. But Bobby was very encouraging. He said, ‘It’s great, you’ll get good training, get your debt paid off.’ Then he said–and I honestly didn’t think he meant it literally–‘Oh, you’ll come back.’ He meant, you’ll do the right thing, you have a good heart. Almost 10 years went by, I was debt-free and I also wanted to be free of those golden handcuffs. I called Bobby, just to see what was going on, and he invited me right back. Well, I’ve seen things from the other side now. I’m not intimidated. I know the games.”

Adds Estrin: “He’s an inspiring guy to work for. He bleeds passion. I’ve seen him speak to groups dozens of times, and what he has to say still gets me fired up.”

Kennedy’s latest speech brought him to a fundraiser at a mansion overlooking the Hudson Valley. The host, Seema Boesky, is a prominent philanthropist. Several hundred guests were assembling to hear Bobby address concerns about the nearby Indian Point nuclear power plant. Actor Chevy Chase, on hand to introduce him, stood admiring some of Boesky’s “Old Master” artwork. “You know, if you take a coin and scratch the paint, you can tell whether one of these is real of not,” Chase dead-panned.

The discussion that followed felt all-too-real. “There is no power plant in the country that is more vulnerable, or a more attractive target for terrorists, than Indian Point,” Bobby told the overflow crowd assembled under a large tent outside. “It’s located 24 miles north of New York City. If a meltdown occurred, within the 50-mile ‘kill zone,’ there are 21 million people. A week after September 11, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission admitted that nobody knows whether or not a large commercial aircraft could break through the containment dome.”

To illustrate what he was talking about, Bobby told how he’d recently enlisted one of his brothers, Douglas, a reporter for Fox News, to take a film crew and rent a small Cessna at the Westchester County Airport. While they circled a thousand feet above the nuclear plant for about 20 minutes, “nobody even came out and waved them away.” Finally, the pilot grew nervous and asked to see the brothers’ identification–realizing that they could’ve easily overpowered him and plunged the aircraft directly into the fuel rod pools.

There were a number of other unprotected areas at Indian Point, including the cooling water intake on the Hudson River. “Incidentally, Indian Point has the worst safety record of any nuclear plant in the United States,” Kennedy continued. “I think it should be closed down immediately,” as was the Shoreham facility on Long Island (before it could produce electricity). Within two years, new high-efficiency natural gas turbine plants could replace all the power that’s generated at Indian Point, Kennedy says. By the end of this evening, between $50,000 and $70,000 would be raised for an advertising campaign to alert the public about the potentially catastrophic situation.

A Controversial Stand … On Wind

Bobby feels compelled to take an opposing stand on one renewable energy proposal: the Cape Wind Project, a massive $700 million wind farm that a private company wants to build in Massachusetts’ Nantucket Sound. The 130 wind turbines spread across 25 square miles (and as tall as 40 stories) would be the first such project constructed in U.S. waters. Supporters, including many environmentalists, tout its role in providing electricity for much of Cape Cod while cutting pollution and combating global warming. Foes worry about potential harm to prime fishing grounds and sea birds, as well as to tourism and scenery.

Kennedy, whose family’s summer home is on Nantucket Sound, has been accused of NIMBYism. Asked about this, he responded: “I’m a strong advocate of wind farms on the high seas. But there are appropriate places for everything. We wouldn’t put one of these in Yosemite, and I think environmentalists are falling into a trap if they think the only wilderness areas worth preserving are in the West. The most important are the ones close to our cities, where the public has access to them. And Nantucket Sound is a wilderness, which people need to experience. I always get nervous when people talk about privatizing the commons. In this case, the benefits of the power extracted from Nantucket Sound are far outweighed by the other values our communities derive from it.”

Arriving back at his house around 9 p.m., and yet to have any dinner, Bobby pointed to a baby owl in its cage right outside the front door. “I have to teed this guy first,” he said. The owl, found abandoned in the woods, is now a part of his licensed wildlife rehabilitation center. With his wife still attending a school open house for their daughter Kira, Bobby wandered into the kitchen and located a salad in the refrigerator.

The phone rang. It was his brother Max, 12 years Bobby’s junior. A professor at Boston College Law School, where he teaches a course called “Nature in American Culture,” Max is also a co-director of the Urban Ecology Institute, which works with 17 Massachusetts schools, getting students involved in hands-on efforts to study local water quality and catalogue species diversity. Max was calling Bobby, as he often does, for some advice. “Would I be doing this if it weren’t for Bobby? I’m almost certain I wouldn’t be,” Max would say later. “I don’t know if I’d have gone to law school. For sure I wouldn’t be a falconer, or have all the animals we keep at our house.”

Now, on the kitchen TV, a commercial came on promoting the latest SUV. Bobby shook his head. “The checkbook diplomacy between Detroit and the White House, including about $30 million in campaign contributions from the big auto companies, has bought the auto industry immunity from making any sacrifices for our country. Franklin Roosevelt got on the radio and asked Americans to conserve gasoline, but now we have a President who goes on TV, asks Americans to go shopping, and gives them a $100,000 tax deduction for the worst gas-guzzling SUVs.”

Bobby pulls no punches about what he sees happening under the current Bush administration. “I lived through the Reagan years, through [James] Watt and [Newt] Gingrich, and nothing has ever been as bad as this. What’s going on right now is the worst assault in history on our environment. 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.”

His voice quavering with rage, Bobby continued: “Using what happened on September 11 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”

Out the picture window in his “junk room,” night had enveloped the trees and the lake stocked with fish. Kennedy continued to talk fervently about the White House commission, “whose purpose is to figure out ways to dismantle the National Environmental Policy Act.” And about the efforts to gut key provisions of the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act, allowing more mountaintop mining and letting coal burning power plants off the emissions hook.

“Our big problem is getting the message out,” Bobby said. “If the American people, Republicans and Democrats, hear the message, we win on the merits. The trouble is, industry has all the money and an extremely sophisticated public relations machine. That includes spending millions to create these phony think-tanks in Washington, D.C. They fill them up with these ‘biostitutes,’ marginalized scientists who make pronouncements that global warming’ doesn’t exist and the ozone hole is a myth and the oil industry is good for the fish.”

Will He Run?

Kennedy’s knowledge, charisma, and ability to articulate all of this raises the obvious question: Can he, should he, run for political office himself? John Adams, NRDC’s president, has known Bobby for 20 years and says: “I think he has the potential to be a great political leader. If he were, he’d also be a great leader when it comes to values. He’s enormously attractive to a lot of people who care about the future of the planet, and people all across America talk to me about wanting to support him if he does run for of rice. But I think he has considerable reluctance. He’s got a wonderful family. And it could be dangerous.”

Author Jack Newfield thinks there’s more involved than the dangers inherent in a Kennedy running for high office. “I’ve sensed a real ambivalence in him about politics. And what you have to endure to go through an election, in terms of negative campaigning and fundraising. But given his name, intelligence and character, he could probably run for and win any office.”

For his part, Bobby, who has endorsed John Kerry for President, admits having considered entering the political arena. “But 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, which allows me to hang out with my family and be a good father. I think that would be more of a challenge if I ran for office. But maybe at some point I’ll get so angry about the way our politicians behave that I would make another choice.”

As he spoke, bathed in the glow of the lamplight, the momentary resemblance to his father was positively eerie. He continued: “What I seek to impart to my students is 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 spend your resources on behalf of the community. 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. 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. My job is to be able to look 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 will be able to do that. Because I know I will never sell out, and I’m going to spend my life fighting as hard as I can. I will die with my boots on. That’s really all I care about.” CONTACT: Pace Environmental Litigation Clinic, (914)422-4210,; Riverkeeper, Inc., (800)21-RIVER,

DICK RUSSELL is the author most recently of Eye of the Whale: Epic Passage from Baja to Siberia (Simon & Schuster).

©2003 Earth Action Network, Inc.
©2004 Gale Group