Queer Eye’s Jonathan Van Ness and Bobby Kennedy Jr. Talk Water Keeper Alliance and Environmental Justice

In a March 2019 podcast Queer Eye’s Jonathan Van Ness sat down with Pace University Law School alumnus, Bobby Kennedy Jr., to discuss enforcing the Clean Water Act.[1] Kennedy’s legal background with Water Keeper Alliance gives insight to how concerned members of communities can partner with the legal system to fight environmental wrongs. He also discusses the free market, and how it really is not free for the everyday consumer because of environmental harms. This blog post will summarize many of the points made in the podcast, as well as further explore some of the pressing issues raised.

Bobby Kennedy Jr. is currently the president of Water Keeper Alliance.[2] Water Keeper Alliance was initially created by fishermen who were fed up when their booming Hudson River fishing economy was put out of business by polluters.[3]At first, the fishermen wanted to react violently, but one of the members came across the 1888 Rivers and Harbors Act, which made it illegal to pollute in any waterway in the United States.[4] They discovered that there was a bounty provision that said anyone who turned a polluter in received half of the fine.[5] However, in the eighty years since the Act’s inception this provision was never used.[6] After 18 months they were able to shut down the Penn Central Railroad pipe, receiving a $2,000 bounty which they used to go after other Hudson River polluters.[7] In 1973, Riverkeeper won a $200,000 judgment, the largest ever against a corporate polluter.[8] They used this money to expand their reach, including hiring Kennedy in 1984.[9] Since then they have brought over 500 successful lawsuits against Hudson River polluters and have done work in 44 countries.[10]

An interesting tidbit of information Kennedy acquired through his legal career with Water Keeper Alliance was who gets what water in New York City. New York City has high quality tap water nowadays.[11] However, there was a time when there was a large discrepancy in quality of water different areas of the City were receiving.[12] There were two primary sources of water.[13] Water coming from the Catskills, which came from the west side of the Hudson River and water from reservoirs, which came from the east side of the Hudson River. The latter was heavily polluted because the sewage treatment plants were unreliable and there were too many people living near the reservoirs causing stress on the water. Kennedy sued the City to find out how the water was being distributed.[14] The City refused to hand over the information, but knowing they were going to lose the case the handed over the maps on the court house steps.[15]Kennedy’s inkling was correct. The low quality water was diverted to poor neighborhoods and the high quality water was going to the rich neighborhoods.[16] Kennedy was surprised to see that one resident was getting water from a third source, the Delaware River, known at the time as the most pristine water.[17] That residency was Gracie Mansion, the Mayor’s house.[18]

Kennedy notes that poor neighborhoods are always going to be disproportionately burdened by environmental harms.[19]Even though a lot of polluting practices are illegal, big polluters have the ability to violate the laws through political clout.[20] Pollution is a subsidy and a way for corporations to cheat the free market, by shifting the cost of production onto the consumer.[21] In a true free market economy the company would not be able to bring a product to market without paying all of the costs, including cleaning up after themselves.[22] Instead, the polluters make the public pay this cost through higher taxes and other external costs.[23]

This discussion took place before the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published their final rule rolling back the waters of the United States rule.[24] However, Kennedy projected that this would happen.[25] He said he intends to sue, but he believes if it goes to the Supreme Court of the United States the current makeup will offer some challenges. Especially because Justice Gorsuch’s mother, Anne Gorsuch unsuccessfully tried to roll back the same rule when she was Administrator of the EPA under President Ronald Raegan.[26] This will definitely be an interesting case to follow.

If you are interested in listening to the podcast, it is available with a Stitcher premium membership (there is a free trial available) at the link below:

https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/getting-curious-with-jonathan-van-ness-premium/e/59661440?autoplay=true
Image from Waterkeeper Alliance

[1] Getting Curious With Jonathan Van Ness: Who is Enforcing the Clean Water Act? With Bobby Kennedy Jr., Earwolf (March 26, 2019) (downloaded using Stitcher Premium).

[2] Id. at 1:19. See also Board of Directors, Water Keeper Alliance, https://waterkeeper.org/staff-member/robert-f-kennedy-jr-2/. (last visited Sep. 5, 2019).

[3] Earwolf, supra note 1.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness: Who is Enforcing the Clean Water Act? With Bobby Kennedy Jr., Earwolf (March 26, 2019) (downloaded using Stitcher Premium).

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id. See also N.Y.C. Dep’t of Envtl Protection, New York City 2017 Drinking Water Supply and Quality Report 1 (2017), http://www.nyc.gov/html/dep/pdf/wsstate17.pdf.

[12] Earwolf, supra note 1.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness: Who is Enforcing the Clean Water Act? With Bobby Kennedy Jr., Earwolf (March 26, 2019) (downloaded using Stitcher Premium).

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] Id.

[23] Id.

[24] Definition of “Waters of the United States” – Recodification of Pre-Existing Rules, 80 Fed. Reg. 37054 (Sep. 12, 2019) (to be codified as 33 C.F.R. pts. 328 & 40 C.F.R. pts. 110, 112, 116, 117, 122, 230, 300, 302, & 400)

[25] Earwolf, supra note 1.

[26] Id.

One comment

  1. This is a fascinating textbook example of corruption. I’m interested to see where the story will go next- drinking water is so central to public health, it is tragic that such burdens are still being knowingly targeted upon already vulnerable populations. As urban air quality continues to degrade, I think we will see a generation with dangerous compounded health issues, with no hard line legal remedies.

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