More Than Money
Issue #37
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Money and Community

Table of Contents

“Fighting for Our Communities The Story of the Hudson Riverkeepers”

Thoughts from Robert F. Kennedy Jr. *

Robert 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 The 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

"I've 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.

vomiting 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.

This 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.

They 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.

ByMarch 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 intake streams.

And then a Marine named Bob Boyle stood up. He was also the outdoor editor of Sports Illustrated magazine and he was a great fly fisherman and angler. He had written an article for Sports Illustrated about angling in the Hudson; while researching the article,

We 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

he had 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."

That 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.

They used the money to construct a boat called The Riverkeeper , 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.

The 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 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.)

Today, 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."

Big Money
"Last year The New York Times reported that one-quarter of black children in Harlem have asthma; that figure was double the figure researchers expected, based on prior research. 1 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." 2

-Robert F. Kennedy Jr., adapted from a speech at Omega Institute's Living a Fearless Life Conference, April 2, 2004.

Editor's Notes:
1 See "Study Finds Asthma in 25% of Children in Central Harlem" by Richard Perez-Pena, The New York Times , April 19, 2003.
2 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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