Robert Kennedy, Jr. Climbs The Last Mountain

In addition to sharing his father's legendary name, Robert Kennedy, Jr. has carved out a legacy of his own as one of the nation's, and the world's, leading environmental activists and advocates. Born the third of Robert Sr. and Ethel Kennedy's eleven children, Bobby Jr., as he became known, had an altruistic streak almost from the day he could walk, bringing home stray and sick animals he'd find in the woods behind Hickory Hill, the family's rambling estate in Virginia. Kennedy followed his father's footsteps in college, matriculating at Harvard, followed by a J.D. from University of Virginia Law School.

Kennedy started to devote himself almost exclusively to environmental law beginning in 1984, when he sued the alleged polluters of the Hudson River on behalf of the Riverkeepers organization, who then made him their chief counsel. Since 1987 Kennedy has served as a Clinical Professor of Environmental Law and co-director of the Pace Environmental Litigation Clinic at Pace University School of Law. The clinic allows second and third year law students to try cases against alleged Hudson River polluters. Kennedy also serves as a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, a non-profit organization based in New York which works to expand environmental laws and restrict land use.

Robert Kennedy Jr. is at the center of documentarian Bill Haney's new film, The Last Mountain, which examines the battle between Big Coal corporation Massey Energy against local and national environmental activists fighting Massey's devastating practice of Mountain Top Removal in the economically and environmentally-ravaged state of West Virginia. A classic David and Goliath story, The Last Mountain opens in New York June 3 and Los Angeles June 10, followed by a national theatrical release.

Let's talk about what brought you to this place of environmental activism. It sounds like from a very young age, you were naturally altruistic.

Robert Kennedy: I had that interest in the environment from the time I was a kid. I also had the sense that the environment was about people and about quality of life if we wanted to meet our obligations as a generation and civilization and as a nation, which was to create communities for our children that provided them with the same opportunities for dignity and enrichment and good health that we were given, we had to start by protecting the environmental infrastructure: the air we breathe, the water we drink, the fisheries, the public lands, the commons and the landscapes and rivers that connect us to our past and provide context to our communities, and give us our character as a people. I've gone around for twenty-seven years making this argument, that investing in our environment is not a diminishment of our nation's 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 vitality of our generation and future generations.

In your book, Crimes Against Nature, you talk about the fact that your Uncle Jack was the first president to publicly address environmental concerns, then your dad, in '68, was the first candidate to run on a partially environmental platform. In fact, an ad that John Frankenheimer directed, showed your father speaking to grade school children about the environment, which was unprecedented at the time.

Really? I'm not familiar with that. I knew Frankenheimer, and knew that he was with my father when he died, but I don't think I've ever seen that ad.

What were some of the things you and your dad discussed regarding the environment, and how are you continuing to pursue those issues today?

He talked about the Hudson River a lot. He took me kayaking up the Hudson during a blizzard in March of 1965. We both swam. It was the coldest I'd ever been. He took us mountain climbing, skiing, all the great western whitewater rivers to go rafting and kayaking. We went to most of the great eastern rivers, as well. He really wanted us to be able to swim in the East River, but said your skin will probably peel off if you try it, because the pollution was so bad in those days. It was much worse then than it is now, lots more sewage was in the water. So I'd say, just by exposing us to some of the wonders of nature, and then also exposing us to how man had abused nature, we felt an obligation to do something about it.

One thing that struck me about the film is that its primary conflict involves how the rich take advantage of the poor, which is a classic conflict that has existed since the beginning of time.

Yeah, it's the struggle over who's going to control the resources of a nation. Are they automatically going to be controlled by the rich in the part of the nation we call "the Commons"? Of course, the rich are going to control the private property of the nation, because they can afford to purchase it. But the Commons are the part of the country that should be available to everybody, like Central Park. These lands shouldn't be privately owned. Somebody could come in and say "I want to buy Central Park. I really like it here," because they can afford to buy it. It will never happen, because it's part of the Commons, a part of the nation that's reserved for everybody. The airwaves are the same thing, part of the Commons. They're supposed to be used to promote democracy and advance the American people. They're not owned by NBC, CBS and ABC. They're owned by the people and they have to be used to serve the interests of the American people. Those are interesting issues to challenge for those of us who think they're being misused at this point.

Bill Haney made a very good point when he said that the environmental movement today is very much akin to the civil rights movement in the '60s. Would you agree with that?

Yes, in many ways, and it already is a part of the civil rights movement. The people who shoulder a majority of the burden in terms of environmental injuries are almost always the poor and minorities. It's interesting, if you ever read Robert Caro's book The Power Broker, which is about Robert Moses, Moses never held elective office in New York, but he was the most powerful man in the state during most of the twentieth century. He talked about how Moses built and designed most of the parks and roads in New York State. He built most of the big highways, but built them as parkways, so the public could reach the parks. One of the things he did was to deliberately make the bridges over the roads two inches shorter than the Greyhound buses could safely pass under, the idea being that Blacks would be kept out of the parks. He also believed that Blacks didn't like cold water, so he instructed all the city parks to keep their swimming pools at sixty-nine degrees, because he believed that would keep Blacks out of the swimming pools. When I sued New York City over its reservoir water, I said to them 'There's one reservoir that has a hundred and two sewer plants discharging into it. Where is that water going?' This was the New Croton Reservoir. They wouldn't tell me. They said it was a matter of national security, and this was way before 9/11. I sued them, and on the courthouse steps, they finally handed me the plan. The good water from the Delaware and from the Catskills was going all over New York. The bad water was going to Harlem, the South Bronx, Lower East Side, Hell's Kitchen. There was a little white spot that was on the east side, surrounded by all the brown waters from Croton. I had to get a magnifying glass out to look at it: It was Gracie Mansion, the home of New York's mayor. He was getting Delaware water.

Who was mayor at this point, Giuliani?

Yeah, but he had no idea whose water he was drinking. This was just part of the institutional culture. He probably would have been as outraged as anybody if he knew. If you look at where most toxic waste dumps are sited, they're not sited in Bel Air, they're sited in East L.A. The biggest toxic waste dump in America is in Emelle, Alabama, which is 85% Black. The highest concentration of toxic waste dumps are located in Chicago's South Side. The most contaminated zip code in California is in East L.A. And probably among the biggest American health crises we currently face is the fact that 44% of Black children have dangerous amounts of lead in their blood, which we know causes IQ loss. And there are 156,000 Hispanic children who are poisoned every year by pesticides that are brought home on their parents' clothing, after they've been working in the fields. I've seen the little stick pictures that they draw. They're incoherent. It will make you cry if you look at the pictures drawn by these kids. Cesar Chavez, who I spent a lot of time with before he died, said that this is the biggest issue Hispanic farm workers face, the pesticide issue. If we can't grow kids that can exercise leadership on these issues, we're screwed. And right now, we're poisoning our children's brains.

One of the things The Last Mountain points out is that West Virginia also has one of the most toxic environments in the nation, but doesn't have to be that way.

I met with (White House chief of staff) Rahm Emanuel in 2009 to discuss environmental issues, and President Obama stepped in for a few minutes. I asked him the same question my father used to ask: why is it that West Virginia, which has the richest resources of all 50 states, is the second poorest state in the nation? Coal isn't bringing prosperity to the people of the state, it's bringing permanent poverty, and sickness and disease. It's time for a change.