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Kennedy on the Waterkeeper Movement and Waterkeeper Alliance

October 18, 2011

Dan Najuoks, Yadkin Riverkeepeer: 

Tell us about the waterkeeper movement and Waterkeeper Alliance

Kennedy:

The waterkeeper movement began on the Hudson River in 1966 when a blue collar coalition of commercial and recreational fishermen mobilized to reclaim the river from polluters. We have one of the oldest commercial, sustainable gear fisheries on the river in Crotonville, NY. The people that lived there in 1966 were not your prototypical, affluent environmentalists. They had little expectation of ever seeing Yosemite or our national parks. The environment was their backyard: The bathing beaches, the swimming holes, the fishing holes on the Hudson.

In the mid-sixties, they watched as the Hudson was taken away from them. Shad, their primary commercial fish, couldn’t be sold at the Fulton Fish Market because the fish tasted like diesel fuel. The beaches were blackened and closed. All their efforts to get the environmental enforcement agencies to intervene on their behalf met with disastrous failure.

By March of 1966 virtually everyone in Crotonville came to the conclusion that government was in cahoots with the polluters; and the only way they were going to reclaim the river was to confront the polluters directly.  So, 300 people met in an American Legion hall. Most of them were former Marines and combat veterans from WWII and Korea. They weren’t radicals or militants, but they began talking about violence. Somebody said they should roll up a mattress and jam it into the Penn Central railroad pipe that was vomiting oil into the river. Another said they should light a match and burn up the pipe. Somebody else offered to float a raft filled with dynamite into the intake of the Indian Point Power Plant.

They were angry because they saw something that they thought they owned, which was the abundance of the fisheries that their parents had exploited for generations and the purity of the Hudson’s waters, that was being stolen from them by large corporate entities over whom they had no control. They also saw these corporations behavior was protected by government officials when those officials were supposed to be protecting them from pollution.

A famous recreational Angler and Outdoor Editor with Sports Illustrated , Robert Boyle, stood up in the meeting. He had discovered an ancient navigational statute called the 1899 Rivers and Harbors Act that allowed individuals to participate in lawsuits against big polluters and collect the bounty. The law had not been enforced in 80 years, but they made a resolution to start a group – The Hudson River Fishermen’s Association which later became Riverkeeper – to  track down and prosecute every polluter on the Hudson River.

Eighteen months later, they collected the first bounty in U.S. history under this statute. They shut down the Penn Central Pipe for good and kept $2,000. They used that money to go after the biggest corporations in America: Ciba-Geigy, Standard Brands, American Cyanamid, and Anaconda Wire and Cable Company.  They collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in bounty. They used the money to construct a boat and hire a full-time, paid waterkeeper. And in 1984, they hired me as their prosecuting attorney.

Since that time, we’ve brought over 400 successful lawsuits against Hudson River polluters. We forced the polluters to spend close to $5 billion on remediation. Today, the Hudson River is regarded as an International model for ecosystem protection. It is the richest waterway in the North Atlantic. It produces more pounds of fish per acre than any other waterway north of the equator.  It is the last major river system left and still has strong spawning stock for its historical species of migratory fish. The miraculous resurrection of the Hudson has inspired the creation of hundreds of Riverkeepers across North America. Today, we are also the fastest growing water protection group in the world.

 

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