Robert Kennedy, Jr.: The Riverkeeper Who Makes Polluters Pay

By Leonetti, Carol | E Magazine, November-December 1995 | Go to article overview

Robert Kennedy, Jr.: The Riverkeeper Who Makes Polluters Pay


Leonetti, Carol, E Magazine


Robert Kennedy, Jr. has been tailing hawks since his father first gave him one at age 12. Falconry makes him anticipate the bird's moves and respond in a fashion that is dogged yet agile, persistent and swift. Looking back, it seems like ideal training for a career as an environmental litigator.

Kennedy wasn't always in the business of bringing lawsuits against polluters. The third of Robert and Ethel Kennedy's 11 children seemed headed for the family business -- politics. First there was a degree from Harvard, followed by law school at the University of Virginia and then a job as assistant district attorney in Manhattan. But Kennedy left New York City in 1983, the same year he was caught with heroin in his possession and the same year he checked himself into a South Dakota rehab center to deal with his drug addiction.

A year later, following court-ordered community service, he started working for the Hudson River Fishermen's Association, a group that eventually became the Hudson Riverkeeper Fund, Inc. Today, he's the chief prosecuting attorney for the Hudson Riverkeeper and senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). He also teaches and runs the environmental law clinic at Pace University in White Plains, New York. He and his student-stalled law firm currently count some 40 cases against polluters.

Detractors call Kennedy a renegade who should keep his nose out of other people's sludge. Supporters, like Hudson Riverkeeper John Cronin, say he's single-minded in his quest for environmental justice and the protection of public resources.

Kennedy, 41, has a son, Bobby, 10, and a daughter, Kathy, 6, by his first wife. He remarried last year and with his second wife has a son, Conor, 1. His older brother, Joseph, is a Congressman from Massachusetts and his older sister, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, is the lieutenant governor of Maryland. He lives in Bedford, New York, and still chases after pet hawks.

We caught up with him at Pace and followed him into his office. He folded his trim, tanned self into a chair that could politely be described as functional. We stepped over a hammer on the floor, removed a pile of folders in order to sit on a chair and wedged our tape recorder between a file cabinet marked "Bedford Sludge" and boxes of notes stacked waisthigh. We asked if he had just moved in, and were embarrassed when he said no.

E: The students who work in the clinic

seem so filled with energy. Are they

in a cocoon? Is the fight harder outside?

KENNEDY: Well, I wouldn't call it a cocoon. I think law school is something of a cocoon, but what they do here is real life. Each of them gets a polluter to sue. We now have 39 cases divided among nine law students. They're big case litigation, so it's a lot of work. I'd say the average student is here 30 hours a week in the clinic or more. We have a practice order that allows them to do anything a lawyer can do. They have all the ethical responsibilities of a real attorney, including the responsibility to vigorously represent their client, who is the Hudson Riverkeeper.

Was it a big change going from the DA's

office to the Fishermen's Association?

It combined a lot of my life's interest, which was the environment, with some of the prosecutorial skills that I had developed in the district attorney's office. I knew nothing about civil law and that was a big leap for me, because I almost immediately started suing polluters. The first thing I did when I got to the Riverkeeper was to walk a creek on the west bank of the Hudson -- a troubled urban tributary in Newburgh, New York. I documented about 24 polluters on that creek and I brought lawsuits against them all.

It was a high-density situation. A lot of them surprised me. They were little towns and cities that were involved in criminal dumping. Several of them had installed sneak pipes. …

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