Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. Urges Americans to Take Back Their Water

Event: H209 Water Forum Keynote Address
Location: Liberty Science Center, 09.09-10.09
Speaker: Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. — Chairman, Waterkeeper Alliance
Organizers: Henry Hudson 400 in partnership with Liberty Science Center, Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, and the Netherlands Water Partnership

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The Hudson River.

Jessica Sheridan

When Henry Hudson reached New York Harbor, he noted it was teeming with salmon, mullet, and wraith-like rays. Americans have been fisherman since the country was a Dutch colony, employing techniques learned from the Native Americans. “The Hudson River is our Noah’s Ark,” said Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., chairman of the Waterkeeper Alliance, the largest grassroots water protection group in the country. The organization started in 1966 in Crontonville, NY, when commercial and recreational fisherman united to save the Hudson River.

According to Kennedy, “they were prototypical blue-collar environmentalists,” and to them, “the Hudson was their environment, their workplace, their property, their park — it was their Riviera.” They felt Penn Central was robbing them of their river, which had turned black with oil, and joined forces despite doubting they could beat a large corporation and force it to obey the law. In the course of researching an article about angling in the river two years earlier, one member of the group came across two little-known laws — the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1888 and the Refuse Act of 1899. These statutes forbade pollution of American waters and provided a bounty reward for whoever reported the violation.

The Riverkeepers, as they called themselves, succeeded in shutting down the Penn Central pipeline and collected a $2,000 bounty, the first ever awarded under the statute. The group went on to collect larger bounties against Standard Brands, Ciba-Geigy, American Cyanamid, and $200,000 from Anaconda Wire and Copper.

The Waterfront Alliance now has 200 member organizations worldwide. “Know your rights,” says Kennedy. “The people own the waterways, not the government or a corporation.”