Legendary Water Protector Robert Kennedy Jr. Goes in-Depth on Trump Clean Water Act Rollbacks (EnviroNews Exclusive)
(EnviroNews DC News Bureau) — On Jan. 23, 2020, President Donald J. Trump, while undergoing an impeachment trial in the Senate, gutted the Clean Water Act (CWA), with rollbacks that some critics said take the country back to a time before Ronald Reagan. Environmental groups and media outlets went crazy with headlines and predictions that forecast a new environmental apocalypse. As EnviroNews has previously reported, 170 million Americans are already exposed to radioactive drinking water while 250 million Americans are consuming water contaminated with Chromium-6, the “Erin Brockovich carcinogen.” But now, Americans are facing the threat of even dirtier drinking water.
After having already interviewed celebrity water protector Erin Brockovich regarding Trump’s CWA rollbacks, as part of EnviroNews’ extended coverage, Editor-in-Chief Emerson Urry spoke with another legendary water fighter: environmental activist and Founder of Waterkeeper Alliance, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (RFKJR). The interview delves deep and ascertains what Kennedy thinks these policy changes ultimately mean and how they will affect America as a whole.
When it comes to fighting for water quality, Waterkeeper Alliance is the largest environmental organization in the world. It started in 1966 as Riverkeeper with a group of fishermen uniting to protect the Hudson River. It grew as a grassroots movement as local Riverkeepers sprung up across the nation like wildfire. In 1999, Waterkeeper Alliance brought all the Riverkeepers together under one umbrella. Today, the organization harbors more than 300 chapters in over 40 countries and protects about 2.7 million miles of waterways, according to it website.
RFKJR got involved in water activism in part because of the time he spent fishing with his father, beloved politician Robert F. Kennedy. He lived through the time before the implementation of the CWA and knows what U.S. waterways looked like when industry was allowed to dump waste into ecosystems unchecked. While some opponents of the rollbacks say this will primarily affect Big Ag and the real estate development industry, Kennedy sees a larger and more systemic problem.
The transcript to the Urry-Kennedy interview reads as follows:
Emerson Urry: How are you today sir?
Robert Kennedy Jr.: Good. I just got out of court. Now, I’m returning phone calls.
Urry: Well, I appreciate you reaching out. We’ve been doing a little reporting on this and there’s been some pretty sensational headlines on it, that’s for sure. What say you sir?
Kennedy: I’ve been around since the Clean Water Act was passed. I remember what America looked like before it. I remember the Cuyahoga River burning. I remember Lake Erie being declared dead the same year, and the  Santa Barbara Oil Spill that closed all the beaches in southern California and I remember that I couldn’t swim in the Hudson or the Potomac growing up.
The Clean Water Act is the most popular of all the environmental statutes because Americans care about their waterways. This is by far the most consequential attack on the Clean Water Act in history.
I was a part of the battle in 1994 when the Gingrich Congress tried to cut the Act, and then when George W. Bush tried to cut the Act, but none of them planned anything this ambitious. This will immediately overnight strip protection of two million miles of rivers and streams and almost 20 percent of all America’s wetlands.
Urry: Now, let me ask you that because our understanding was that this definitely got the intermittent waterways — the ephemeral sources of water that pop up, possibly even groundwater. We’ve seen some headlines out there that say it’s basically like a free for all on the rivers. How is this going to actually affect the rivers?
Kennedy: Well, I’m not sure how to answer that other than saying it’s about 18 percent of the streams and 51 percent of wetlands nationwide. The health of a river is completely dependent, we know from science, on the health of its headwaters and this is stripping the health of the headwaters.
I’ll give you an example: In eastern forests, the weight of amphibians, the biomass occupied by amphibians, is more than all other animals combined, and you don’t see them, but they’re critical to the functioning of the eastern forests — the role that salamanders play, particularly. And salamanders cannot spawn in anything except for ephemeral waterways…
Kennedy: …because they can’t spawn any place where there [are] fish because they’ll be eaten. The salamander population, which composes more than 50 percent of the biomass of an eastern forest, is 100 percent dependent on those waterways [for its] existence, as an example.
Urry: I hear you on that. What does it look like in practicality because technically, with these rollbacks, a lot of area is actually more vulnerable, but what does it look like in practicality as far as the polluters and what they can actually do? Erin Brockovich told us just yesterday that this is all about Big Ag, and that’s where the majority of the pollution is going to come from, while other people are saying developers. What does this actually look like on the ground and how can [these rollbacks] contribute to pollution in the waterways?
Kennedy: What it’s going to do, it’s going to cause polluters to migrate upstream. They just have to go up to a point in the stream that is declared ephemeral, and they can then dump anything they want into it. In Nevada, for example, 85 percent of the streams are ephemeral.
Urry: Aren’t there some state and local protections [in place]?
Kennedy: And that’s what the polluters will say is that the states have rules to protect local waterways, but the problem with that is, in order to qualify for Clean Water Act funding, which funds most these state conservation departments, the states had to pass rules that were equivalent to the Clean Water Act. But there is an enormous incentive for states to revoke those rules, which is what you’re going to see. And that was why we had to pass the Clean Water Act in the first place, because otherwise you get a race to the bottom among adjoining states that are trying to lower their environmental standards to recruit industry.
Urry: So, now the federal standard’s lower, you think we’ll actually see states start to roll back their protection policies?
Kennedy: Of course they’re going to do that. That’s why we needed a federal law. That was the whole argument for a federal law, is you needed to remove the incentives for states to race to the bottom. And that’s obviously what they’ll do. All they need is one pro-business government, and they dismantle what the entire Clean Water Act has gained.
Urry: And so, on that note, back when we spoke a couple years ago, you told me quote, “Waterkeeper is filing barrages of suits to stop the dismantling of the Clean Water Act.” How’s that going for you guys, and what about this assault here? What’s in the plans for you?
Kennedy: We’re busy. Right now, we’ve got lengthy comments that we’ve already filed on all sensible making actions. We have a lawsuit in the 6th Circuit, which is an appeal to the Supreme Court — on appeal. We have a lawsuit that is pending in the Northern District of California. We have a lawsuit in Oklahoma in federal appeals court there. We have a number of other suits. This is what we do; 25 percent of the Clean Water Act suits that are filed annually are filed by Riverkeepers. (dog barking)
Urry: Did you say 25 percent? I hear man’s best friend back there giving you some support.
Kennedy: Yeah. 25 percent of all Clean Water Act suits filed.
Urry: Here’s a question too, because one thing that’s been pointed out is that actually, the Safe Water Drinking Act is an entirely different thing. The Clean Water Act deals more with point sources. Are we going to see those two things kind of come together with this? What’s your take on that?
Kennedy: The Safe Drinking Water Act is more difficult to enforce. You don’t see that much litigation on the Safe Drinking Water Act. There just aren’t that many opportunities for sufficient enforcement. Usually, it’s the water districts that are most affected. And we end up suing the water districts, but a lot of times we’re also representing water districts against polluters. Right now, I’m representing water districts all over the country against the PFOA polluters — against 3M and DuPont.
Urry: DuPont, yeah.
Kennedy: Well, it’s 3M and DuPont that were the manufacturers of PFOAs. So, you can’t sue an oil company for dumping into a stream that leads to a water supply under the Safe Drinking Water Act; you would still use the Clean Water Act. I think it’s going to endanger drinking water. [Beforehand], a polluter would not be able to drain discharge anywhere into the system, and now all they have to do is move up to the headwaters and find the point… Every stream ultimately becomes an ephemeral stream, so, you just have to find a point where it is ephemeral and put your discharge pipe there.
Urry: I mean does it literally open the door on that level where just any person, any company can [just go out and dump]?
Kennedy: Well, it does in terms of federal law. And then what happens in the state is very few states have [citizens who enforce state] clean water acts. And so, now you’re depending on a state regulator, and all of those state regulators are now captive by the industry — they are captive regulators. So, you just don’t see state enforcement anymore. Virtually all the enforcement going on in the country is citizen enforcement. You don’t see state enforcement anymore.
Urry: Do you think this kind of thing could increase hometown oil pollution as well — people just finding other places to dump? I mean, we know so much waste disposal happens illegally in the oilfield as it is.
Kennedy: Well, listen, in the western states, [production] water you can now dump into an ephemeral stream. Right now, you can’t dump it anywhere, so there’s these big lagoons of [production] water sitting around Louisiana and all the western states. Now, the polluters can just dump them into the nearest gully.
Urry: That’s like old school; like the 1960s.
Kennedy: Well, that’s where we’re headed.
Urry: I mean there’s a lot of spots, like up in the Uintah Basin where there are still these ravines and gullies where they just used to dump either solid and hazardous waste or wastewater…
Kennedy: Yeah, but at least it’s technically illegal, and if we catch them, we can sue them. And now, we won’t be able to sue them anymore.
Urry: So, let me ask you this. This is something that we’ve been asking: What can be done to stop these whimsical political assaults on the Clean Water Act? It’s gone back and forth from one administration to the next; one gains power, and they try to strengthen the Act, and now we’ve got an administration that is going after it.
Kennedy: Are you talking about how to fix democracy? (Urry laughing) Then get rid of the Citizens United provision.
Kennedy: You know, but otherwise, it’s true: there are no permanent victories when it comes to the environment. They’re all temporary.
Urry: Right. So, you win the battle but you don’t win the war?
Kennedy: You win the battle and then you have to fight the next battle, or somebody else. It’s free waste disposal, so it’s very attractive for industries, and there’s always a new one who will step in and say I want to dump my stuff there.
Urry: Well, I know you’re a busy man. Anything else you want to tell us on this?
Kennedy: No that’s good, Emerson. Thanks for covering it.
Urry: I sure appreciate you giving us a call.
Kennedy: Sure thing.
Urry: We’ll be back in touch.
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FILM AND ARTICLE CREDITS
- Emerson Urry - Journalist, Interviewer, Story Editor
- Shad Engkilterra - Journalist, Author, Transcript