Since 1984, environmental attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has brought hundreds of lawsuits against polluters in the Hudson River Valley on behalf of the Waterkeepers Alliance. As a result, the once polluted Hudson has become a remarkable story of successful environmental remediation. Kennedy spoke with Thomas P. Healy from Cape Cod.
HEALY: What's the key to Riverkeepers' success?
KENNEDY: What the Riverkeepers do primarily is to enforce the law. In each of the federal statutes, Congress inserted a provision that says that when the state and federal agencies fail to enforce the laws, any citizen can step into the shoes of the U.S. Attorney and prosecute a federal lawbreaker.
The Riverkeeper movement has made its reputation by enforcing those citizens' suit provisions of the various federal statutes.
HEALY: Those statutes, for example, are what helped you in your battle for the Hudson River?
KENNEDY: Right. We brought more than 300 successful lawsuits on the Hudson. We forced polluters on the Hudson to spend over $3 billion remediating the river, and today the Hudson River is an international model for eco-protection.
HEALY: How many affiliates do you have?
KENNEDY: The miraculous resurrection of the Hudson has inspired the creation of other Riverkeepers. We just approved our 115th Riverkeeper.
HEALY: The Hoosier Environmental Council recently joined the Riverkeepers' Alliance as the Wabash Riverkeepers. What can Hoosiers expect from this relationship?
KENNEDY: The rivers, including the Wabash, are owned by the people of the state of Indiana. They're not owned by the governor or the legislature, and they're not owned by Smithfield Foods or Premium Standard Farms. They are owned by the people.
Everyone has the right to use them. No one has the right to use them in a way that will diminish their use and enjoyment by others. But oftentimes industries with political clout are able to take more than their share. What the hog industry is doing to the Wabash is illegal. But nobody is enforcing the law against it.
There are many federal cases that say that these hog operations violate at least three federal statutes. They're in daily violation of the Clean Water Act, because they don't have permits to discharge. They're in violation of the Resource Conservation Recovery Act, which says you can't put waste on soil. And then they're in violation of the Superfund law, which regulates air emissions from these plants and the Clean Air Act.
All of those laws should be enforced by the state's attorney general. But the industry has used its political clout to tame the regulatory agency and to co-opt it. It's called agency-capture phenomena, where they actually capture the agency through a number of processes, including revolving doors and the [fact that] agency fees can come from regulated industry and through political campaign contributions. They capture the agency, and so the public is not getting the benefit of existing environmental laws because there's no enforcement.
HEALY: So Riverkeeper affiliates can use these statutes in their localities?
KENNEDY: We're all working with the same federal statutes. Those federal statutes are good in Indiana. It's illegal to pollute the Wabash.
The hog industry is operating illegally in the state. It's just that nobody is enforcing the law against it. And what the Wabash Riverkeepers will do will be like the marshal coming to Dodge. It's going to start enforcing laws against people who are engaged in criminal activities, who are stealing a public resource and getting away with it.
Unfortunately we have public agencies whose job it is to enforce those laws, and they're not doing it. And as a result of that we have family farmers who are out of work because these large corporate confinement operations have put the small farms out of business.
HEALY: How can environmentalists convince both the regulatory agencies and the regulated community that environmental remediation, restoration and protection are good for the economy?
KENNEDY: You know what? Good environmental policy 100% of the time is good economic policy. We shouldn't have to persuade the regulatory agencies to do their job. The legislatures passed these laws because they believed that it was in the economic interest of the state.
In the short term, of course, if you want to treat the planet as if it were a business in liquidation and convert our national resources into cash as quickly as possible and have a few years of pollution-based prosperity, you can generate an instantaneous cash flow that's going to enrich a few wealthy people. But our children are going to pay for the joyride. And they're going to pay for it with denuded landscapes and poor health and huge cleanup costs that they're not going to be able to afford and that they're going to have to buy over time.
Environmental injury is deficit spending. We're unloading the cost of our generation's prosperity onto the backs of our children. It's a way of making a few people rich by making everybody else poor.
HEALY: Unfortunately, that's the status here in Indiana, where the health and well-being of the people are compromised.
KENNEDY: That's short-sighted. It's deficit spending. Politicians and, unfortunately, industry have short horizons. The politicians don't look beyond the next election, and industry doesn't look beyond the next shareholders report.
The role of the environmentalist is not to protect the fishes and animals and trees but to protect the integrity of our communities over the long term. And the environment is the infrastructure of our community.
HEALY: Federal installations, especially military bases, are big polluters.
KENNEDY: The military has not been a good neighbor. The military is the biggest polluter in our country. There are now 44 million acres of military land that are contaminated, according to the most recent Environmental Protection Agency analysis. That's an area greater than the size of Florida.
If a foreign nation did to us what our own military has done to our country, it would be considered an act of war.
HEALY: The Indiana Department of Environmental Management recently informed the Hoosier Environmental Council that it had no standing to challenge a coal-fired power plant that is seeking modification of its license to pollute.
KENNEDY: Unfortunately, in Indiana you have a very, very weak environmental agency. It's notorious for being not much more than a front for the industry.
HEALY: And the Democrats are as responsible as the Republicans.
KENNEDY: Right. That's true in many states, particularly with the hog industry. The Democrats are as bad as Republicans.
HEALY: Are you familiar with attempts to pass legislation in Washington that would severely restrict class action lawsuits by moving them from state courts to federal courts?
KENNEDY: I know that there's legislation that's designed to circumvent class actions. I don't bring a lot of class actions, but it's clear that those kinds of lawsuits are one of the last major barriers left between the power of industry and the rights of the public.
Because of our campaign contribution system industry now has absolute access to our Federal government and is literally rewriting the rules on Capitol Hill. We've never seen this kind of control by the special interests making this kind of threat to our democracy in our nation's history.
And one of the last bastions of public right is the ability to stand up to corporations [via] class action lawsuits. But the courts are also increasingly falling under industry control.
HEALY: Yeah, the whole right-wing tilt of the judicial system as activist judges have been appointed...
KENNEDY: Right. We're losing our ability to vindicate the place of the public in the courts.
HEALY: So you've actually not used class actions as one of your legal tools?
KENNEDY: I have used them, but I haven't used them a lot.
HEALY: What do you prefer?
KENNEDY: We use prosecution. I do public prosecution. They're not tort actions, where somebody is suing a polluter. They are prosecutions where you actually prosecute polluters, and fines go to the Federal treasury. They're doing what the U.S. Attorney and the state Attorney General in Indiana ought to be doing now, but because they're not doing it we have to do it.
HEALY: In your book Riverkeepers, I was interested in reading about journalist Bob Boyle who was helpful in forming Riverkeepers. Did his active role in Riverkeepers compromise his role as an objective journalist?
KENNEDY: No. The role of a journalist is to tell the truth. That's the same in every profession: in science, in law and supposedly in politics - although it happens less there than anywhere. The role is to tell the truth. It's not to be balanced.
A lot of journalists say 'I've done my job as long as I've told both sides of the story.' But that's not your job - your job is to tell the truth. For example, you can tell both sides of the story by saying, 'OK, virtually every major meteorological scientist in the world says that global warming exists and that it's caused by industrial emissions.'
But then they quote scientists on Capitol Hill and in the fancy think tanks - though we can't call them that - we call them biostitutes. They're mercenary confusionists like Fred Singer, paid by the oil and coal industry, who aren't doing science. They're just printing glossy, slick pronouncements and phony studies that say there is no such thing as global warming.
You're not doing your job as a journalist if you quote Fred Singer and then quote Tom Watkins - who's the top guy in the world on this issue - and give them each equal weight. That's actually confusing the public. What a journalist needs to do is say, 'OK 99% of scientists say this exists, there's a few kind of average, marginalized people who are paid by the oil industries to say it isn't.'
If the truth comes out, we win!
HEALY: The EPA cut the entire global climate change section out of its recent "State of the Environment" report rather than have it watered down by the Bush Administration.
KENNEDY: This Administration is one of the most dishonest Administrations we've ever had in our history, with a calculated dishonesty that is shocking and horrifying. Every single Federal agency that's doing science has been co-opted into the political realm. So we have not seen science coming out of the Federal government.
HEALY: Look at the recent Energy Bill...
KENNEDY: It's not only the Energy Bill, look at what's happening at the Department of Interior, where study after study is being suppressed. Look at the Department of Agriculture. Six months ago the top air scientist in the Midwest, Jim Zahn, completed a research study that was paid for with our taxpayer dollars that showed that there's a billion antibiotic resistant bacteria that leave each one of these manure lagoons every single day and cross property lines, threatening public health and neighboring herds. The hog industry got ahold of that study before it was released. They were able to intervene with Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman, and she ordered the study suppressed. So it's never been released to the public, and Jim Zahn was ordered not to speak publicly about it. And he resigned.
But that is not unusual, that is typical on Capitol Hill every single day now. I could give you a list of 25 major studies that have been suppressed - everything from polar bears and caribou in the Arctic to global warming. All the agencies have been ordered not to discuss mercury contamination. Most of this is coming from our military reservations, and all of these studies have been suppressed by the government. It's not supposed to be the government's role to suppress science. They are trying to deceive the public about the impact of their policies, and that is really criminal.
HEALY: Why do you think it's unreported?
KENNEDY: Journalism has lapsed in this country. And the reason is clear: you've got 11 large corporations that control virtually every journalistic outlet in this country - newspapers, television, radio. The newspapers and media outlets have now become profit centers, so there are no longer newspapers run by newspaper people. They are profit centers for large corporations. It's not about producing truth any more - it's about entertainment. What you read on the front page, what you see on CNN is gossip and murders; which really has nothing to do with people's quality of lives and the major political decisions that we're making. The foreign bureaus have been liquidated and the investigative reporters have all been fired. People aren't interested in the truth any more. It's just not coming out of the journalistic outlets. It's scary for our democracy because democracy is based upon an informed citizenry.
Thomas P. Healy is a freelance writer in Indianapolis and publisher of Branches magazine. Portions of this interview have appeared in the Hoosier Environmental Council Monitor and Branches.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. will be the keynote speaker for the Hoosier Environmental Council's 20th anniversary gala at 7 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 18, at the Indiana State Museum. For more information, call Denise Baker, 317/685-8800.