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Clean Water Drill 

Robert Kennedy Jr. wants environmental watchdogs with teeth (or with bite)

click to enlarge Robert Kennedy, Jr. - DANIEL SCHWEN
  • Daniel Schwen
  • Robert Kennedy, Jr.

Threats to water — threats coming from billionaires and corporations and milquetoast regulatory agencies — are threats to the health and welfare of everyday people.

And when the everyday people rise up to fight back, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is happy to be on their side.

Kennedy was born into a family of newsmakers — President John F. Kennedy was his uncle, assassinated presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy was his father and the late Sen. Edward Kennedy another uncle.

Kennedy Jr. has made a name for himself as a fearsome defender of the environment, winning hundreds of lawsuits against polluters of the Hudson River and elsewhere as chief prosecutor for the organization Hudson River Riverkeeper.

He has since become a board member of the umbrella group, International Waterkeeper Alliance, which has opened more than 200 chapters around the world — including Spokane and Sandpoint.

In recent weeks, Kennedy became the first to file a suit against BP over the sinking of Deepwater Horizon and the resulting — and ongoing — gush of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

Kennedy will bring his message of fighting for clean water and a clean environment to Spokane and Sandpoint next week, when he headlines events to highlight the two newer members of the Alliance’s fold — Spokane Riverkeeper and Lake Pend Oreille Waterkeeper.

In an era of patient deal-making and consensus in which environmental activists have grown more polite in their dealings with industry, Kennedy still carries the reputation of going for the jugular.

It comes from his first experiences with the Hudson Riverkeeper group, he says.

The founders weren’t your typical enviros. The group was formed by commercial and sports fishermen alarmed and angry that industrial and municipal pollution was destroying their fisheries, taking money out of their pockets.

“These guys were former Marines and combat veterans from Korea and World War II,” Kennedy says. “When they first got together in that American Legion Hall [at the inaugural meeting], they were talking about blowing up pipes.”

Robert Boyle, one of the founders, famously discovered an obscure regulation, the 1882 Rivers and Harbors Act that allowed people to sue polluters.

That find still shapes Riverkeeper organizations to this day.

“We are a law-enforcement organization. We do monitoring; we do legislation, education, agitation — all the things activists are supposed to do,” Kennedy says.

“In the end, [Hudson Riverkeeper] has collected millions of dollars and sued 400 polluters. They used the money to construct a boat and patrol the Hudson to track down more polluters,” he says.

As a result, the Hudson has undergone a miraculous transformation in the last 40 years and now is among the richest rivers in fish and biomass of any on the East Coast, he says.

Spokane Riverkeeper Rick Eichstaedt, attorney with the nonprofit Center for Justice, says the Kennedy approach informs the operation at the local level and the way Riverkeeper deals with both polluters and with regulators such as the Washington Department of Ecology or the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

“We see it as enforcing the law. We do what Ecology or the EPA are unwilling or unable to do because of staffing or politics,” Eichstaedt says. “People get it. People want clean water, and they don’t want others to ignore the law.”

Kennedy — the 11th child of RFK, who was assassinated during the 1968 presidential race — came to environmental activism via an unlikely entry point: community service to satisfy a drug possession bust.

In 1984, at age 29, Kennedy was arrested when a small amount of heroin was discovered in his luggage at the Rapid City, South Dakota, airport.

Sentenced to two years’ probation, Kennedy satisfied his hundreds of hours of community service by volunteering to work for the Hudson Riverkeepers. They were so impressed that when his sentence ended, Kennedy was hired as the group’s chief prosecutor.

Recently, he was the first to file suit against BP, representing commercial fishermen who operate in the Gulf of Mexico and some of the communities threatened by the Deepwater Horizon tragedy.

Fortuitous weather has kept much of the millions of gallons of oil already released into the Gulf from reaching land, but Kennedy says this will soon change.

“As low-pressure systems … come in later in the summer, it will push the plume right up the Mississippi,” he says. “It will kill not only the marsh grass, but do permanent damage to the whole coastline.”

Kennedy says he spent the last several days at a conference with oil and natural gas drillers and reports industry leaders are shaken.

“One of the gentlemen knew the Deepwater Horizon personally. … He said there were so many redundancies and fail-safes that they believed an accident like this would never happen.

“He’s a real drill-baby-drill person, but is very reflective about it. The fact that it has happened has shaken and stunned the whole industry,” Kennedy says.

Robert Kennedy Jr. will speak at Gonzaga University’s Martin Centre at 7:30 pm on May 20. Tickets are $15 ($5 for students) at brownpapertickets.com. The next day, from 8:30-10 am, he will appear at Trinity at City Beach in Sandpoint. A few tickets remain at $60, which includes brunch.

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