In the 1980s Robert F. Kennedy Jr. joined a small band eco advocates along the Hudson River to clean up the vital waterway that connects the urban chaos of Manhattan to upstate New York. The fight sparked the international Riverkeeper movement, and today there are more than 300 waterkeepers around the world battling polluters, ensuring environmental laws are followed, and raising awareness about the importance of clean air, land, and water. Known for his outspoken (and at times controversial) views on the environment, politics, and vaccines, Kennedy, the president of the Waterkeeper Alliance, stopped by Atlanta last weekend for the SweetWater 420 Fest. (SweetWater, as part of its annual “Save the Water” campaign, donates $100,000 to groups such as the Waterkeeper Alliance and other eco advocates.) Atlanta magazine sat down for a brief interview with Kennedy before he went onstage to urge greater environmental advocacy. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
On how the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper helped lead a national effort to clean up waterways:
Sally Bethea was one of our most aggressive riverkeepers. She actually was one of the people who helped us found the Waterkeeper Alliance in 1999. She founded the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper in 1994. Then she immediately filed the lawsuit against the City of Atlanta [alleging the city was responsible for persistent sewer spills]. That was one of our first billion-dollar lawsuits and [Bethea helped create the model]. She was kind of a golden child for us. (laughs) And the involvement of the Ted Turner family was invaluable. They’re inspiring people—optimistic, idealistic, wonderful, and energetic people to be around.
The first time I came down here [in the mid-1990s] I spent a day on the river canoeing. And at that time it was not heavily utilized. I think the city had really turned its back on the Chattahoochee. I spent [last Thursday] with Andy Young for a panel in Memphis at the Woolworth where the sit-ins took place in 1960. When he spoke on this panel, Andy said, “When I ran for Congress the only people outside of the black community who would talk to me were the environmentalists. The first bill I proposed and passed when I got to Congress was to make the Chattahoochee River a park.” Now I think it’s one of the most visited parks in the country.
On plans to increase access to—and possibly develop parts of—the largely industrial segment of the river between I-75 and Chattahoochee Bend State Park:
The only thing I would say is it should be planned. You can have a lot of people using a resource if you plan carefully. The benefits will be enormous. The amazing thing that happened to the Hudson, when we started working on the river, in the riverside towns like Irvington, the least expensive buildings were the ones next to the river. It smelled, it was not a resource. Today those are by far the most expensive structures in the town, and they actually generate the tax revenue that supports the schools and the rest of the village.
That story is true of every city in the country that has done successful urban renewal projects. They almost all started with renewing access to the waterway. In San Francisco, Baltimore, San Antonio, New York, and Boston, they put the money into restoring the waterfront and access. New York is a series of islands in the middle of the Hudson, yet there was zero public access to the river. Now the parks along the Hudson are some of the most utilized. The buildings are generating tax revenue. It’s changed the face of New York. Every dollar you put into restoring the waterfront returns to benefit the city in myriad ways. That’s not to say you shouldn’t do it carefully.
On the biggest threat to the nation’s waterways:
Donald Trump and [head of the Environmental Protection Agency] Scott Pruitt. It’s all politics now. We have really good environmental laws in this country, but No. 1: they’re not being enforced, and No. 2: they’re being eviscerated. If we left those laws in place and let them function, the Chattahoochee would be fine.
On why there’s more collective outrage over Scott Pruitt’s ethical lapses—the sweetheart condo rental deal and a soundproof booth in his office, for example—than his controversial decisions to roll back environmental protections:
Your guess is as good as mine. Environmental issues are complex. People don’t understand where it touches their lives. You see corruption, that you recognize. It’s true across the board that people don’t regard environmental crime as real crime. But it is real crime and it has real victims.
Scott Pruitt’s rollbacks on the coal rules are going to allow tremendous amounts of mercury into America’s waters. If you put a molecule of mercury [into our water] and it gets into a fish and into a pregnant mother or a child who eats that fish, and that mercury gets into a baby’s brain, it can cause inflammation, a loss of IQ, or endocrinology disruption like PFOAs [cause]. Mercury can injure sexual development, IQ, and learning capacity, so when that little girl gets to be seven years old and she can’t read a book quite as well as her classmates and can’t solve a math problem, when God gave her the brain to solve that and the coal company took it away from her, that’s a crime. And it’s about as bad as any crime you can commit.
That child’s entire life, her self-image, self-esteem, aspirations for herself, her understanding of what she can accomplish with her life, all of that is curtailed. That to me is as bad as assault and battery, as child abuse. But people don’t see it as a real crime from some reason.
Any prosecutor in this country will prosecute a kid who throws a brick through a window or steals a car. But they’re more averse to criminally prosecuting [a utility] for discharging mercury into a waterway that millions of people are drinking from.
This is why I like the law. Law enforcement is not just about punishing a single polluter. It’s about changing the moral milestones of the society. When I was a kid there was no rule against smoking in an airplane or a restaurant. If someone lit up in a restaurant and blew smoke in your face everyone accepted that. Today if anyone lit up a cigarette in a New York restaurant they’d be viewed as a sociopath, as a bad human being, right? In Europe if you’re an oil company CEO and you break a law, people don’t want to be seen with you. You become a pariah. They have laws that are not quite as as good as ours, but they’re enforced. In our country, Koch Energy can violate laws, yet people are seen with them at their charity events, they go the New York City Ballet, and everything’s okay. [I think] they’re criminals, and they should be treated like criminals. It’s the same way that people wouldn’t have their picture taken with Al Capone.
On the future of the environmental movement:
I think the environmentalists have to focus more on getting money out of politics and restoring democracy. The worst environmental law is Citizens United [the landmark Supreme Court case that opened the door for unlimited spending on political campaigns by organizations].
Democracy and the environment are intertwined. Anywhere you see large environmental violations you’re going to see the subversion of democracy. You’ll see the disappearance of transparency, corruption of public officials, capture of agencies by industries, and the erosion of public rights to comment and participate on decisions that dictate the destinies of their communities. We’ve already had losses that we will never recover. We want to preserve as much as we can for our kids. Environmentalism isn’t about protecting the fishes and birds for their own sake. It’s about recognizing that nature is the infrastructure of our communities.