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Kennedy visits campus, forms pact with audience to combat polluters

The nation should unite and take a proactive stance against environmental polluters, said attorney and environmental crusader Robert F. Kennedy Jr. during a visit to the University and metropolitan Detroit.
Kennedy (Photo by Paukl Jaronski, U-M Photo Services)

At a press conference at the Michigan Union and a lecture sponsored by the School of Natural Resources and Environment (SNRE), Kennedy focused on the nation's struggle to keep its waterways clean. As chief prosecuting attorney for the Hudson Riverkeeper Alliance and senior attorney for the National Resources Defense Council, he has spent decades trying to track down polluters on rivers and lakes, and protecting the rights of individuals who use them. In his talks with the Ann Arbor community, Kennedy stressed the necessity of providing a safe environment for future generations.

"The reason we protect the environment is not for the sake of the fishes and the birdsit's for our sake," Kennedy told attendees at the press conference. "It's because we recognize that if we want to reach our national mission, which is to create communities that have the same opportunities for enrichment that our parents gave us, we've got to start by making an investment in our environmental infrastructure."

In a speech at SNRE, he said, "We have laws that say it's illegal to pollute in the Detroit River, but people are still doing it because those laws aren't being enforced. ... Once you enforce them, and put a few people in jail, then everyone's attitudes will change."

One way to make an investment in the environment, Kennedy said, is to support groups like Riverkeeper. With 99 local chapters, including one on the Detroit River, Riverkeeper has made it its mission to protect the nation's waterways and prosecute those who abuse them. Kennedy, the founder of the Riverkeeper alliance, has applauded the work of environmental activists, but said these efforts are insufficient. Enforcement of existing laws, he said, is a necessary component in cleaning up waterways.

Kennedy discussed the origins of Riverkeeper, which was started on the Hudson River in 1966. There, he said, a group of commercial fisherman, angry over water pollution from large corporations, organized an alliance to track down polluters and enforce environmental laws. Though initially ignored by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Coast Guard, the Hudson River Fisherman's Association, later named Riverkeeper, successfully fined corporations that contaminated the Hudson, he said.

Today, Kennedy said, the Hudson River is a model for ecosystem protection. Since he was hired as Riverkeeper's chief prosecuting attorney in 1984, Kennedy has brought more than 300 successful lawsuits against Hudson polluters and fined them more than $3 billion.

"This is a waterway that was a national joke—it caught on fire, it turned colors, it was dead water for 20-mile stretches," Kennedy said. "Today it's the richest water body in the North Atlantic. ... It's the last refuge for many animals that are going extinct elsewhere."

Kennedy used the Hudson River example to illustrate that persistence is the key to protecting the country's waterways. He said Michigan, once a pioneer in environmental protection, has eroded its commitment due to an unsupportive state government. It is his hope that with the state's Riverkeeper chapters and groups such as the Friends of the Detroit River, Michigan can regain its standing as a leader in environmental protection.

"By protecting our air and our water and enriching landscapes, we learn who we are as a people and provide dignified settings to raise children," he said. "If we fail in that, we've failed our country and we've failed every estimate of what it means to be a responsible person."

In addition to his speeches in Ann Arbor, Kennedy participated in numerous other events in the area, including the Ann Arbor Riverkeeper Fair at Riverside Park, a visit with Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick at Belle Isle's Detroit Yacht Club, and a boat ride on the Detroit River. All events were sponsored by SNRE, the Friends of the Detroit River and a coalition of environmental groups in southeastern Michigan and western Ontario.

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