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How the people saved their river

In 1966, Transcentral Railroad began vomiting oil from the riverside rail-yard on the Hudson River in New York state. The oil went up the river on the tides, blackened the beaches and made the fish impossible to sell at the markets in New York City.

One of the enclaves of fisheries on the Hudson is a little village called Peeskill, 30 miles north of New York City on the east bank of the river. The people who lived there back in 1966 were not affluent, tweed-jacketed, pipe-smoking environmentalists, trying to preserve distant wilderness areas in the Rocky Mountains. They were factory workers, carpenters, labourers and electricians who made at least some part of their living by fishing or crabbing on the Hudson. Many of them were former marines, combat veterans from World War II and Korea.

By March of 1966, virtually everyone had come to the conclusion that the government was on the side of the polluters and that the only way they were going to reclaim the river for themselves was if they confronted the polluters directly.

About 300 people gathered in the Peeskill American Legion Hall and somebody suggested that they put a match to the oil slick coming out of the Transcentral pipe. Somebody else said they should roll a mattress up and jam it up the pipe and flood the railyard with its own waste. These weren’t radicals or militants, but that night they started talking about violence because they saw something they thought they owned—the abundance of these fisheries and the purity of the Hudson River, which their parents had enjoyed for generations—being robbed from them by a large group of entities over which they had no control.
And then a guy stood up, a marine from Korea called Bob Doyle. He was a great fly fisherman and spin fisherman and had written half a dozen books on angling. Two years earlier he had written an article about angling on the Hudson. Researching it he had come across an ancient navigational statute of the 1888 Rivers Act that said it was illegal to pollute any waterway in the US. You had to pay a high penalty if you got caught, but also there was a bounty provision which said that anybody who turned in the polluter got half the fine.

That evening, Bob Doyle stood up with a copy of that law and a memo. He said, ‘We shouldn’t be talking about breaking the law; we should be talking about enforcing it.’ And they resolved that evening that they were going to form a fishermen’s group, which later became Riverkeeper, and that they were going to go out and track down and prosecute every polluter on the Hudson.

Eighteen months later they collected their first bounty, the first penalty in US history under the 19th-century act. They shut down the Transcentral pipe for good; they got to keep $2000, a huge amount of money in New York in 1968. There were two weeks of wild celebrations in the town and they used the money that was left over to go after some of the biggest corporations in America.

In 1973 they collected the highest penalty in US history against a corporate polluter, getting $200,000 from Anaconda Wire and Cable. They used that money to construct a boat called the Riverkeeper which they used to start patrolling the river. In 1983 they hired their first fulltime Riverkeeper, a former commercial fisherman. He hired me a year later as the prosecuting attorney for the group. We’ve brought more than 300 successful lawsuits since I started working for Riverkeeper, forcing polluters to spend more than $4 million on remediation of the Hudson.

The river that in 1966 was dead water for long stretches between New York and Albany is today a rich waterway that produces more pounds of fish per acre, more mass per gallon, than any other waterway in the Atlantic north of the equator. The miraculous resurrection of the Hudson has inspired the creation of Riverkeepers now all over the globe. We have many international keepers, including six either being licensed now, or already licensed, in Australia.

A lot of people argue that we have to choose between environmental protection on the one hand and economic prosperity on the other. That is a false choice. Good environmental policy is identical to good economic policy, [unless] we want to do what the polluters and sometimes their servants in the political process urge us to do, which is to treat the planet as if it were a business in liquidation, convert our natural resources to cash as quickly as possible and have a few years of pollution-based prosperity. We can generate an instantaneous cash flow and the illusion of a prosperous economy, but our children are going to pay for our joy ride—with polluted landscapes, poor health and huge clean-up costs that are going to amplify over time and which they’ll never be able to pay.

Environmental injury is deficit spending; it is a way of loading the cost of our generation’s prosperity onto the backs of our children. And if you don’t believe that, look at the nations that didn’t invest in their environment back in the 1970s the way we did in the US and Canada and many other countries.
I remember Lake Erie, one of the five Great Lakes, was declared dead. I remember that I couldn’t swim in the Hudson. I remember what the air was like in Washington, DC, where I grew up. Some days you couldn’t see down the block for the smog. We had dust in our home every day. There were thousands of Americans dying in our cities every year during smog attacks. I remember the falcons, which I used to watch in Washington. I could see them whenever I would visit my uncle Jack Kennedy at the White House. I would watch these birds come down Pennsylvania Avenue at 40 miles an hour. But that’s a sight my children will never see because that bird became extinct because of DDT poisoning in 1963, the same year that my uncle was killed.

In 1970 this accumulation of insults drove 20 million Americans onto the streets demanding that our political leaders return to the American people the ancient environmental rights that had been stolen over the previous 80 years. And the political system responded; Republicans and Democrats got together and agreed to create the Environmental Protection Agency and pass 28 major environmental laws to protect our air and water and endangered species. They’ve become the model for more than 120 nations around the world that have their own version and began making their own investments in their environmental infrastructure.

But a lot of countries didn’t do that. Invariably they were countries that didn’t have strong democracies, because democracy and the environment are intertwined. The best measure of how a democracy is functioning is how it preserves and distributes the goods of the land, the commons, those assets that are not subject to private ownership, but by their nature are owned by the whole community: air, water, wildlife, fisheries, public lands. Do we allow those things to be concentrated in the hands of a few powerful people or corporations? Or do we make sure they stay in the hands of all the people? That’s really the best measure of how a democracy is functioning.

There’s a direct correlation around the planet between the level of tyranny in various countries and the level of environmental degradation, whether it’s right-wing tyranny like Brazil during the ’70s and ’80s or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq during the ’80s and ’90s, or left-wing tyrannies like Eastern Europe and China and the Soviet Union where they are now dealing with these science fiction-like nightmares because of their failure to invest in their environmental infrastructure.

Russia is a great example. The Soviet Union didn’t have democracy, so it had no environmental laws. It didn’t, for example, have the law that requires the government to do an environmental review before it distributes or disposes of a public-trust asset. As a result of that the Aral Sea is now a desert. It didn’t have a clean water act in Russia and the Sea of Isok, as a result, is now a biological wasteland. It didn’t have nuclear regulatory review requirements, and because of that one-fifth of Belarus is now permanently uninhabitable due to radiation.

In Turkey, where they don’t have a clean water act, 300 species have disappeared from the Marmara Sea over the past 15 years, the Black Sea will be dead within ten. In Thailand, where they also don’t have a clean air act, you can see people on almost any street in Bangkok wearing gas and particle masks. The New York Times recently reported that the average child in Bangkok that has reached the age of six has permanently lost seven IQ points because of the density of air-borne lead contamination at ground level. One of the growth industries in Beijing today is oxygen bars where people literally go to buy a breath of fresh air.

In those nations and many others environmental injury has matured into economic catastrophe, and that’s what would happen in the US or Canada or Australia or any other country that failed to invest in its environmental infrastructure.

One of the things that I’ve been doing, particularly with the Congress that we have right now, is confronting the argument that an investment in our environment is going to diminish some of our nation’s wealth. It doesn’t diminish our wealth; it’s an investment in infrastructure, the same as investing in telecommunications or road construction. It’s an investment we have to make if we’re going to ensure the economic prosperity of our generation and the next.

There’s no stronger advocate for free-market capitalism than myself. I believe that the free market is the most efficient and democratic way to distribute the goods of the land. It’s also the best thing that could happen to the environment because the free market encourages efficiency, and efficiency means the elimination of waste, and pollution, of course, is waste.

Polluters make themselves rich by making everybody else poor. They raise standards of living for themselves by lowering quality of life for everybody else. And they do that by escaping the discipline of the free market. You show me a polluter, I’ll show you a subsidy. I’ll show you a fat cat using political clout to escape the discipline of the free market and force the public to pay his production costs.

I’ll give you an example from my own experience on the Hudson with the General Electric Corporation. GE came to the Hudson Valley back in the ’60s and said to these two poverty-stricken Hudson towns, Port Edward and Hudson’s Falls, ‘We’re going to build you a spanking new factory. We’re going to create 1500 new jobs. We’re going to raise your tax base and all you have to do is waive your environmental laws and let us dump our toxins and PCVs into the Hudson River. And if you don’t do it, we’re going to move to New Jersey. We’re going to do it from across the river and you’ll still get the PCVs, but they’ll get the jobs and tax [breaks].’ So Port Edward and Hudson’s Falls took the bait and two decades later General Electric closed those factories. They fired the workers and they left the Hudson Valley with their pockets stuffed with cash, the richest corporation in the history of mankind. And they left behind a $2 billion clean-up bill that nobody in the Hudson Valley could afford.

I have a thousand commercial fishermen, my clients, who are now permanently out of work because, although the Hudson is loaded with fish, the fish are still loaded with GE’s PCVs and they’re too toxic to legally sell on the marketplace. The barge traffic on the river has dried up because the shipping channels are too toxic to dredge, and all of these waterfront communities have to pay lots of extra money for their water-filtration plants. Everybody in the Hudson Valley has PCVs in their flesh and in their organs. What GE did was to impose costs on the rest of us that should in a true free-market economy be reflected in the price of that company’s product when it makes it to market.

But what GE did, which is what all polluters do, is shift the cost to the public; they used political clout to escape the discipline of the free market. And what all of the federal environmental laws in the US were intended to do was to restore free-market capitalism to America by forcing actors in the marketplace to pay the true cost of bringing their product to market rather than forcing the public to pay those costs. What I do as a Riverkeeper is go out into the marketplace and catch the cheaters, the polluters, and say to them, ‘We’re going to force you to internalise your costs, the same way that you’ve internalised your profits.’

The free market takes a lot of care, and it makes sure that people are paying the true cost of bringing their product to market. What the Riverkeepers do is put a patrol boat out on the waterway, and that patrol boat announces to the public that this is a resource that belongs to the public, so that we don’t turn our backs on it because that’s the easiest thing to do. The river gets polluted, people stop fishing in it, and they go play golf or do something else. But it destroys, it robs from our community. Every child in Melbourne has a right to go down to the Yarra River and pull out a fish and bring it home and feed their family of five. And ultimately every child in Tel Aviv has the right to go to the Yarkon River and swim and fish and bathe and enrich their lives.

The constitution of the state of New York, like the constitution of every state, says the people of the state own the waterways. They’re not owned by the governor or the legislature or GE. Everybody has the right to use them. Nobody has the right to use them in a way that would diminish or injure or reduce the enjoyment by others.

This is an ancient law. In ancient Roman law the public-trust assets—air, water, wildlife, fisheries, dunelands, wetlands and oceans—belonged to the public. If you were a citizen of Rome, rich or poor, humble or noble, European or African, you had an absolute right to cross a beach, throw in a net and take out your share of the fish. The Emperor himself couldn’t stop you.

But when Roman law broke down and Europe entered the Dark Ages, the local lords and feudal kings began reasserting control over the public-trust assets. That’s what always happens when democracy breaks down—powerful entities will assert themselves and the first thing they will do is try to privatise the common, steal it from the public.

The reason [Riverkeepers] are protecting the environment is not for the birds or fishes but for our sake, because we recognise that nature enriches us. It’s the basis for our economy and we ignore that at our peril. The economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment. But it also enriches us aesthetically and recreationally, culturally and historically and spiritually. I’m not fighting for the Hudson for the sake of the fish, but because I believe my life will be richer and my children and community will be richer.

I don’t believe that nature is God, but I do believe that it is the way that God communicates with us most forcefully. God talks to human beings through many ways: through each other, through organised religion, through the great books, through wise people, through art, through literature, and music and poetry. And nowhere with such force and detail and clarity and texture and grace and joy as through Creation.

If you look at every religious tradition throughout the history of mankind, the central epiphany always occurs in the wilderness. All the prophets came out of the wilderness, and all of them were shepherds. That daily connection to nature gave them a special access to the wisdom of the Almighty. They contradicted everything that the people heard from the literate sophisticated people of the time. But they were able to confirm the wisdom of the parables through their own observations of the fishes and the birds. And they were able to say, ‘They’re not telling us something new; they’re illuminating something very, very old: the messages that were written into the Creation by the Creator at the beginning of time.’

This is where our national values in America or Australia come from. If you look at the great literature of all our countries, or the songs by which we define ourselves, all of them are of the unifying theme of nature as the critical defining element of who we are as a people. We define ourselves by talking about kangaroos, wallabies and dingoes and all of these elements that unite us to the land.

These things root us in the land and connect us. When we cut ourselves off from them, we cut ourselves off from the source of our values. These are the values that define not only our community but also our morality and ultimately our humanity. When we cut off the source of those things, we shut off the sense of humanity, and when that happens, God save us all.  

Robert Kennedy Jnr is an environmental author and acts as chief prosecuting attorney for Riverkeeper. This is an edited extract of a speech he made on 29 May 2005 at the Carlton Crest Hotel, Melbourne, organised by the Jewish National Fund. At that event, Victorian Deputy Premier John Thwaites announced an agreement between the cities of Melbourne and Tel Aviv to exchange information on the clean-up of the Yarra and Yarkon rivers.



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