Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. honored for environmental advocacy
● By Lev
By Steven Hoffman
Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. was lauded as a protector of the environment for his work with the Waterkeeper Alliance and Riverkeeper as he received this year's Stroud Award for Freshwater Excellence at the Stroud Water Research Center’s annual Water's Edge gala held at Longwood Gardens on Oct. 23.
“Mr. Kennedy has been a staunch advocate for the rights of people and wildlife to clean, fresh water and a long-time champion of stream and river ecosystems worldwide,” said Bernard W. Sweeney, Ph.D, the director at the Stroud Water Research Center. “I’m thrilled that he is here to receive the award.”
More than 350 people turned out for the event honoring Kennedy, who serves as president of Waterkeeper Alliance, vice chair and chief prosecuting attorney for the Hudson Riverkeeper and senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Kennedy told the audience that his appreciation for the environment dates back to when he was a boy, and he shared an amusing story about how he once took a salamander to his uncle’s office because he was concerned about its health. President John F. Kennedy welcomed the eight-year-old and the sickly salamander to the Oval Office.
Kennedy also enjoyed many rafting trips with his famous father, U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, including vacations that were spent paddling along the Colorado River with the towering walls of the Grand Canyon nearby. He understood, even then, how invaluable the waterways were to sustaining life.
“I always knew I was going to be an environmental advocate,” Kennedy explained.
He graduated from Harvard University and studied at the London School of Economics before earning his law degree from the University of Virginia Law School. When Kennedy went to law school, there weren't any environmental law courses so later on he attended the Pace University School of Law, where he was awarded a Master’s Degree in Environmental Law.
The Hudson Valley is considered the birthplace of the modern American environmental movement, and Kennedy talked extensively about the work to protect the Hudson River and its tributaries, as well as the watersheds that provide drinking water to New York City. He explained that in the 1960s, a group of local fishermen started organizing an effort to reclaim the Hudson River from polluters because of the serious impact that some large companies were having on fish and wildlife in the area. The Hudson River Fishermen's Association, a forerunner to the Riverkeepers organization, was one of the early modern examples of grassroots activism by citizens to stop polluters. People started taking a closer look at the environmental impact that some industries were having on the waterways, leading to scientific studies.
Kennedy has said in the past that there are good environmental regulations on the books, they just need to be enforced. An illustration of this occurred when the Hudson River Fishermen's Association became one of the first groups to rediscover the Refuse Act of 1899 that established fines from $500 to $2,500 for discharges that pollute navigable waters in the U.S. This Act became a useful tool as many citizens’ groups sought to curb pollution in the 1970s and 1980s.
Kennedy said that it’s important for people to remember that the waterways are not owned by the government or by the factories, but by the people. And when the government fails to properly protect the waterways, citizens need to reassert their ownership by using legal actions.
That’s where Riverkeepers comes in. The organization helps national and international networks guard local waterways through citizen empowerment in environmental law.
“It's always been illegal to pollute the water,” Kennedy said, noting that various governments have had laws that date back centuries. “What pollutants do is make themselves rich, while making everyone else poor. It's not just about having a nice place for frogs to hatch. It's much bigger than that.”
Kennedy said that too often good environmental policy is pitted against good economic policy, but there's actually no need to choose between the two.
“That is a false choice,” Kennedy said. “Good environmental policy is identical to good economic policy. We all have a right to clean, fresh water.”
To that end, Kennedy has serviced as a clinical professor and supervising attorney at Pace University School of Law’s Environmental Litigation Clinic which gives citizens the legal representation that they need to stand up to corporations and even the government when it comes to protecting the waterways.
Kennedy himself is credited with leading the fight to protect New York City’s water supply. The New York City watershed agreement, which he negotiated on behalf of environmentalists and the New York City watershed consumers, is regarded as an international model for consensus negotiations and sustainable development.
“The Hudson River is now a model for waterways,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy authored two books, “Crimes Against Nature and “The Riverkeepers,” as well as numerous articles in support of protecting the environment.
Kennedy was named one of Time magazine’s “Heroes of the Planet” for his success in helping Riverkeeper lead the fight to restore the Hudson River. Riverkeeper has grown to become a national organization with local chapters around the country, and the group’s achievements have helped launch more than 200 Waterkeeper organizations around the world.
Kennedy, now 60, is personally involved with efforts to protect the environment. In the documentary film “Grand Canyon Adventure: River at Risk,” he rode the length of the Grand Canyon with his daughter and with anthropologist Wade Davis, explaining how the river is imperiled. It's the same trip he took with his father back in the 1960s.
Kennedy said that leaders of today have an obligation to protect the environment for future generations and he said that the research that is done at places like the Stroud Water Research Center is necessary.
Kennedy called Stroud Center the “gold standard for science in this area. They are doing things that no one else can do.”
Stroud Center officials lauded Kennedy for his personal efforts to improve the level of scientific integrity that forms the basis for environmental policies and laws.
Sweeney explained that he first met Kennedy when he came to the center for the opening of a new building in 1999.
“We've worked with him before. He knows us well and we know him well,” said Rod Moorhead, the chairman of the board of directors for Stroud Center.
“He's been a leader in protecting fresh water around the world,” said Dave Arscott, Ph.D., the assistant director at Stroud Center.
The Stroud Award for Freshwater Excellence, also known as the SAFE Water Award, has been presented each year since 2011. Past recipients include Jane Lubchenco, Ph.D. and Kathryn Sullivan, Ph.D., in 2013; John Briscoe, Ph.D. in 2012; and Olivia Newton-John and her husband, John Easterling, in 2011.
To contact Staff Writer Steven Hoffman, email email@example.com.