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Protecting our Water Commons: Interview with Robert Kennedy Jr.

We can be the most powerful protectors of our own sources of water.
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Whose job is it to protect our waterways? Water quality laws and enforcement are only as strong as the popular movements that press for them. Unless we stand up, those who would privatize, pollute, or divert our waters get away with it. That’s the message of Robert Kennedy Jr., founder of the international Waterkeeper Alliance and chief prosecutor of the New York-based Riverkeeper, which helped lead the successful movement for the restoration of the Hudson River.

Sarah van Gelder: When did it first occur to you that ordinary people might be the best protectors of their waterways?

Robert Kennedy Jr.: I started working with Riverkeepers in 1984 when it was still called the Hudson River Fishermen’s Association. It was a blue-collar coalition of commercial and recreational fishermen who mobilized to reclaim the river from its polluters.

Kennedy Main Photo by Shadia Fayne Wood

Robert Kennedy Jr. says we the people have the right to protect our commons.

Photo by Shadia Fayne Wood

In 1966, Penn Central Railroad was vomiting oil from a four-and-a-half-foot pipe in the Croton-Harmon Rail Yard 30 miles north of New York City, blackening the beaches, and making the shad taste of diesel. The people of the village of Crotonville, N.Y., were mainly commercial fishermen, and about 300 of them—a large number of whom were former Marines from Korea and World War II—came together in an American Legion Hall. They talked about blowing up pipes on the Hudson and stuffing a mattress up the Penn Central Pipe or floating a raft of dynamite into Indian Point Power Plant, which was killing a million fish a day and taking food off their family tables.

A guy named Bob Boyle, another Korean War vet, came to the meeting. Two years before, he’d written an article for Sports Illustrated about angling in the Hudson. Researching that article, he discovered an ancient navigational statute called the 1888 Rivers and Harbors Act that made it illegal to pollute any waterway in the United States and included a bounty provision that said that anybody who turned in a polluter got to keep half the fine.

The law had never been enforced in 80 years, but it was still on the books. Boyle stood up in front of this gathering of people who were all talking about violence, and he said, “We shouldn’t be talking about breaking the law. We should be talking about enforcing it.” They resolved that night to start a group they called the Hudson River Fishermen’s Association and to go out and track down and prosecute every polluter on the Hudson.

van Gelder: When did you get involved?

Kennedy: I came along in 1984. I was doing volunteer work for the association, and a guy came into the office one day and said, the whole city of Newburg, N.Y., [then a poor, predominantly black city north of New York City—Ed.] was being overrun with pollution. I offered to go over there with him, and we ended up walking seven and a half miles up the Quassaick Creek, and we found 24 different illegal polluters.

van Gelder: When you were slogging up that polluted creek, did it ever occur to you that this is no job for a Kennedy—that you should be sitting in a law office?

Kennedy: No. I actually got lawn chairs and I sat next to pipes all night. At one point I crawled into a big discharge pipe into a dye factory and saw where they were dumping vats of dye into the creek. I swam across a pool in the middle of the night to take samples from another pipe that was illegally discharging from a textile house.

We found 24 polluters, and I set to work suing every one of them. Everything they were doing was illegal, but the state and federal agencies had essentially been captured by the polluters that they were supposed to regulate, and they weren’t doing what they were charged with doing. I didn’t know much about environmental law at the time, but I learned it as I prepared the lawsuits.

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