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CoastLine: Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. on the Origin of CAFOs, Environmental Justice

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. is President of the Waterkeeper Alliance, which held its annual conference in downtown Wilmington June 1- 6, 2016.

Robert F. Kennedy, Junior is Founder and President of the Waterkeeper Alliance, an organization of nearly 300 waterkeepers spanning the globe.  He serves as Chief Prosecuting Attorney for the Hudson Riverkeeper, is a Clinical Professor and Supervising Attorney at Pace University School of Law’s Environmental Litigation Clinic, and he is co-host of Ring of Fire on Air America Radio.

He came to Wilmington, North Carolina for the annual conference of The Waterkeeper Alliance.  


RLH:  Robert Kennedy, your journey as a champion of clean waterways began on the Hudson River.  For that work, you were named one of Time Magazine’s Heroes of the Planet. You’ve held that up as an international model of ecosystem protection.  How is it that?  What changes were you able to make in New York?

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.:  Well, It wasn’t really me. I kind of jumped on a moving train. The organization, which at that point was called the Hudson River Fishermen’s Association and later became Riverkeeper, and then, you know, it’s evolved into the Waterkeeper Alliance, but the movement was started on the Hudson River by a blue-collar coalition of commercial and recreational fishermen who mobilized back in 1966 to reclaim the Hudson from its polluters.  We have on the Hudson River the oldest commercial fishery in North America.  It’s like North Carolina— it’s 350 years old.

Many of the people I represent come from families that have been fishing the river continuously since Dutch colonial times.  It’s a traditional gear, sustainable fishery.  They use the same fishing methods that were taught by Algonquin Indians to the original Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam and then passed down through the generations. 

One of the enclaves of that fishery was a little village called Crotonville, New York that’s 30 miles north of New York City on the east bank of the river. The people who lived there in the 1960s were not your prototypical, kind of affluent environmentalists. They were factory workers, carpenters, lathers, electricians. Half the people in Crotonville made their living or at least some part of it crabbing or fishing the Hudson. These were people who had little expectation they’d ever see Yosemite or Yellowstone National Parks.  For them, the Hudson was their environment.  It was their bathing beaches, their fishing holes, their swimming holes.  It was their recreation. It was their livelihood.  It was their property value.

In 1966, Penn Central Railroad began vomiting oil from a four-and-a-half-foot pipe in the Croton Harmon railyard, and that oil went up the river on the tides, it blackened the beaches, and the shad tasted of diesel.  They couldn’t be sold to Fulton Fish Market in New York City. 

And all the people of came together in a little building, the only public building in the town which was the American Legion Hall.  It was a very patriotic community.  Crotonville, New York had the highest mortality rate during World War II of any community in our country.  Virtually the entire male population joined the Marines the day after Pearl Harbor.  

Most all of the original founders of Waterkeeper were former Marines. They were combat veterans from World War II in Korea.  These weren’t radicals. They weren’t militants.  They were people whose patriotism was rooted in the bedrock of our country. 

But that night they started talking about violence because they saw something that they thought they owned, which was the abundance of these fisheries and the purity of the Hudson’s waters, and it was being robbed from them by large corporate entities over whom they had no control.  And they’d been to the government agencies that are supposed to protect Americans from pollution -- and the Corps of Engineers, the Conservation Department, the Coast Guard,  and they were given the bum’s rush. 

RLH:  So there was a Conservation Department back then. 

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.:   There was.  It’s now called DEC.  It used to be called the State Conservation Department. But they went to the Corps of Engineers office, Rachel, in New York City, on 20 occasions.  The head of – the President of the Fishermen’s Association, his name is Richie Garrett, he was a combat veteran Marine from Korea, and he went on 20 separate occasions begging the Corps Colonel to do his job and shut down the Penn Central pipe.  And finally the Colonel told him in exasperation, “These are important people,” speaking of the Penn Central Board of Directors, the polluters. 

And he said, “We can’t treat them that way.”  In other words, we can’t force these important people to comply with the law. So by this evening in March 1966, virtually everyone in Crotonville had come to the conclusion that government was in cahoots with the polluters. And the only way that they were going to reclaim the river for themselves is if they confronted the polluters directly.  And somebody suggested that they put a match to the oil slick coming out of the Penn Central pipe and burn up the pipe.  Somebody else said that they should roll a mattress up and jam it up the pipe and flood the railyard with its own waste. Someone else said they should float a raft with dynamite into the intake of the Indian Point Power Plant, which at that time was killing a million fish a day on its intake screens and taking food off their family tables.

And then a guy stood up who was a famous fisherman, fly fisherman and had come to that meeting.  He was another Marine.  He was the Outdoor Editor of Sports Illustrated magazine, and his name was Bob Boyle.  And he was one of the gurus of dry fly tying in this country, and two years before, he’d written an article in Sports Illustrated about angling in the Hudson. And when he was researching that article, he had discovered an ancient navigational statute called the 1888 Rivers and Harbors Act, and that statute said it was illegal to pollute any waterway in the United States.  You had to pay a big penalty if you got caught.  But also there was a bounty provision that said that anybody who turned in a polluter got to keep half the fine.  And he had actually sent a copy of this law to the lawyers at Time Magazine which owned Sports Illustrated.  He said, “Is this still good law?”

And they sent him a memo back saying in eighty years it’s never been enforced, but it’s still on the books.  It’s good law.  And that evening, when all of these men and women, 300 people were in that American Legion Hall talking about violence, he stood up in front of them, and he said, “We shouldn’t be talking about breaking the law. We should be talking about enforcing it.”

And they resolved that night that they were going to start a group that later became Riverkeeper.  And they would go out and track down and prosecute every polluter on the Hudson.

Eighteen months later, they shut down the Penn Central Pipe.  They kept $2,000, which was a huge amount of money in Crotonville in 1968.   They used the money to go after Ciba-Geigy, Tuck Tape, Standard Brands, American Cyanamid, the biggest corporations in America. In 1973, they collected $200,000 from Anaconda Wire & Cable for dumping toxins in Hastings, New York. They used the money to construct a boat. They used bounty money to hire me as their attorney in 1983.  They hired a full-time Riverkeeper, a former commercial fisherman named John Cronin.  Since then, we’ve brought 500 lawsuits. The Hudson today, as a result of our work, is the richest waterway in the North Atlantic.

RLH:  What do you mean by “the richest”?

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: I mean that it produces more pounds of fish per acre, more biomass per gallon than any waterway in the Atlantic Ocean north of the Equator.  It’s the last major river system left in the Atlantic Ocean that still has strong spawning stocks of all its historical species of migratory fish.  So it’s Noah’s Ark.  It’s a species warehouse. It’s the last refuge for many of these animals that are going extinct elsewhere.  And the restoration of the Hudson inspired the creation now of 294 Keepers on waterways all across the world.   

RLH: You tell this story beginning with a group of blue collar folks who mad their living and enjoyed recreation on the water and on those beaches. And so much of the work that you’ve done as an environmental attorney pivots on the issue of environmental justice. Are those issues ever separable, environmental advocacy and environmental justice, or are they always going to be entwined?

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.:  They’re always entwined, at least in my experience.  If you look around, and this state included, the cost of environmental injury always falls disproportionately on the backs of poor communities and minority communities.  Four out of every five toxic waste dumps in America is in a black neighborhood.  The largest toxic waste dump in the country is in Emelle, Alabama, which is 85% black.  The highest concentration of toxic waste dumps in America is the south side of Chicago. In Los Angeles where I moved recently, the most contaminated zip code in all of California is East L.A., which, you know, is a poor, black neighborhood.  

Here in North Carolina, eight of the biggest toxic waste dumps, the coal ash ponds that are used by Duke Energy are in black neighborhoods, and you can go on and on with those examples, but this is a phenomena we see everywhere that democracy and the environment are intertwined and justice and the environment are also intertwined.

RLH:  We’ve spent the last five weeks or so on this show talking about Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations.  Hog production and poultry production – it’s an important part of the economic engine at least in the agricultural sector in this state.  And we’ve talked about the claims of negative impacts on local waterways.  There is a complaint, a Title VI complaint, filed against the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality.  Is that something that the Waterkeeper Alliance is involved in?

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.:  Yes.  You know, we’ve been involved in this issue.  We have fourteen Waterkeepers, Riverkeepers here in North Carolina, and we have an air force of 22 planes that patrols the hog farms constantly that takes pictures. We’ve taken tens of thousands of pictures from the air, looking at these hog operations breaking the law in front of us, spraying their spray fields during rainy days, spraying into rivers, into streams, polluting the waterways of North Carolina, which were once the richest waterways in the world.

But if you look in Duplin County, Bladen County, where most of these – all of eastern North Carolina and particularly southeastern North Carolina where these hog farms are located, it’s almost always in communities that don’t have the political power -- that lack the political power…

RLH:  And we’re going to talk more about CAFOs when we come back from this short break.  You’re listening to CoastLine…

RLH:  Before we went to break, we were talking about CAFOs, and Mr. Kennedy, you were talking about some of the resources that you provide to the local Riverkeepers to do surveillance, aerial surveillance, of hog and poultry facilities and you were talking about how you believe these facilities pollute nearby waterways. 

Robert Kennedy, Jr.:  The industry was really invented here in North Carolina back in the 80s.  A state legislator named Wendell Murphy took a look at what three chicken barons had done—Frank Perdue, John Tyson, and Bo Pilgrim—who over the previous 15 years had devised a new way of raising chickens, and they had put a million independent chicken farmers out of business in this country, so we had reached the state at that point where there were virtually no independent fryer, broiler, or egg producers in America, and they had shifted chicken production to a factory-like atmosphere where a million chickens were shoehorned into a single facility and raised in what they call battery cages where they couldn’t stand up or turn around and where they were dosed with antibiotics and hormones that caused them to literally lay their guts out over a short and miserable life.

Wendell Murphy looked at that model and said, “I can do the same thing with hogs.” And he passed 28 laws in the state of North Carolina that made it almost impossible to sue a hog factory and gave huge subsidies to this new industry, and he devised a special warehouse called the Murphy 1100. He left the legislature, and he went into business with Smithfield, persuaded them to build the biggest slaughterhouse in the world. Bladen County slaughters 30,000 hogs a day. And within ten years, they had put out of business virtually every hog farmer in the state of North Carolina. They dropped the price of pork from 65 cents to 5 cents a pound, and it cost the farmer about 32 cents a pound to raise that pig to kill weight, so literally no hog farmer could stay in business unless he signed a contract with Murphy. And it was the end of family farming for hogs in the state but also the beginning of this huge pollution source. There’s now more hogs in eastern North Carolina than there are people. There’s ten million hogs in the eastern part of the state on 2,200 factories.

RLH: There’s been an evolution though of the practices in the industry since then. There’s a moratorium on any more hog farms that can have lagoons. There’s a moratorium that kind of concentrated animal feeding operation, and there are strict regulations in place over how the waste that comes out of these facilities can be used.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: You make a good point that there’s a moratorium, but by the time we put the moratorium in place, we had already reached market saturation, so nobody really wanted to see more hog farms, including the industry. When Wendell Murphy started production, there were about 28,000 independent hog producers in the state and now there are virtually none. Instead, you have 2,200 factories, which are mainly, about 80% of them are owned by two companies. So you have exactly what Thomas Jefferson feared, which was the takeover of the landscape by a few large corporations, which is what he said was the thing that distinguished America from Europe. In Europe, the land was all owned by a handful of large aristocracies and today you have a corporate kleptocracy in America that now controls 80% of the land base, at least in terms of hog production, in the entire state of North Carolina. Jefferson thought that American democracy could only survive if it was rooted in tens of thousands of independent freeholds owned by family farmers, each in control of their own land, and each with a vested interest in our system, and we’ve lost that now, and what was developed here in North Carolina because it drove down the price of hogs has metastasized to the entire country and in fact, to the entire industry. The reason it drives down cost is not because of greater efficiencies. It’s because of the political power to pollute, to dump their waste into our landscapes without any kind of cost being imposed, to externalize their cost, and also to take advantage of huge federal subsidies in the corn industry which independent farmers could not do.

RLH: When you’re talking about externalizing costs, that’s an environmental advocacy term that’s used to mean what? How does a company do that?  

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: In a true economy, an actor in the marketplace, the producer of a product would have to pay the full cost of getting their product to market. And that of course, includes the cost of cleaning up after yourself which is a lesson we were all supposed to learn in kindergarten. What polluters do is they force the public to pay those cost by polluting. So, we shoulder the costs through damaged health care, through damaged environment, through diminished lives, through diminished property values when somebody pollutes. What environmental laws are intended to do is to restore free market capitalism by forcing polluters to internalize the cost, to pay the true cost of bringing their product to market.

RLH: So you’ve compared this business model to a cancer that has metastasized across the country. Are there any CAFOs that are doing it right? Are there any CAFOs that could be considered sustainable models of operation?

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: I would say to you that, yeah, there is a sustainable model and it’s called farming. In 1915, we were producing more hogs in this country than we are producing today. We were producing them in a sustainable way, and the money that was coming from those hogs was going to tens of thousands of American families, and it was supporting communities, and it was enriching communities.

RLH: The industry would argue today that there are plenty of farm families that are licensed by the big producers, and the big producers own the animals and they pay for the production, the farmer owns the land, but they call them family farmers.  

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: They call them that, but they’re really just indentured servants on their own property. They’re what the Russians used to call serfs. A family farmer is someone who makes independent decisions over their own farms. Rachel, here’s how the model works. The company goes to a farmer who is about to collapse because the price of hogs is 5 cents and it costs him 32 cents to raise the hog. The company—Smithfield or Murphy—will go to that farmer and say, “Look, you’re about to lose everything, but we’re going to give you a way out. You sign this contract, and here’s what it’s going to say: You build one of our facilities on your property. It’s going to cost you $200,000, so we need you to mortgage your house and your farm to build this hog plant. We’re going to provide you with the feed. We’re going to provide you with the animals. You raise them for sixty days and give them back to us. But you’re going to own the waste, and we don’t want to know what you’re going to do with it, and we’re not going to give you enough money to dispose of it legally. And by the way, if we drop the price we’re paying you next year, what are you going to do? You cannot dismantle your facility. Your home and your farm no longer have any value except as one of our hog farms. Nobody will slaughter your animals if you don’t sign a contract with us because we own the only slaughterhouse. So you now are completely a slave or a servant to us or our whims, and your entire future is in our hands. You no longer have any say over what you’re going to do with your property, and your property has no value to anybody except us.”

RLH: When we talk about sustainable food production, that being an important puzzle for protecting the waterways, especially in North Carolina, do you think that market-based forces are starting to pick up that fight? Are consumers demanding more sustainably produced goods? Are they showing that they’re willing to pay more for those products when they’re considered to be sustainably produced?

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: Here’s the facts about that. There’s a big consumer movement towards more sustainable agriculture and healthier agriculture. I once saw the marketing data from Proctor & Gamble. I was on a board with the CEO of Proctor & Gamble, and he showed me this very interesting marketing data. Proctor & Gamble has extensive marketing data for consumer attitudes going back almost one hundred years, and he showed that there’s about five percent of the population that will pay more for a product because that product has a social benefit. But that’s it. That’s the cap.

RLH: When was that research done?

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: That research is consistent over a hundred years, over a century. People will pay more if there’s a health benefit for them. And that, I think, is the key here, is that people are beginning to understand that factory-raised hogs are not good for you. It’s not good meat. It doesn’t taste well. It’s laced in many cases with hormones, in the case of poultry, with arsenic, and with antibiotics that are dangerous not only for the whole society but for you as a consumer. It goes to the quality of the product and what you’re getting for it, and large portions of the population will pay a premium for products that they consider healthy or better.

RLH: You recently performed a ribbon cutting ceremony for what you are calling the largest nutrient recovery facility in the world. This took place in Chicago. Explain, first of all, why the launch of this plant meant so much to you and what you think it will change.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: In addition to doing environmental advocacy, I’m deeply involved in the environmental innovation and energy space. I’ve been a partner for many years on the biggest venture, green tech venture capital firm in the country, and I’m involved in a number of companies that are trying to change production models to make them more energy efficient and to make them greener. And many of these are in the water space.

This company which you’re talking about, Ostara, is a company that removes phosphorous from the stream of the sewage treatment plant and turns it into a very valuable fertilizer that can then be marketed around the country. It’s important because phosphorous is normally— here in North Carolina, every farm needs phosphorous fertilizer. That phosphorous is coming from Morocco or from Florida. It’s cracked out of the rock. It’s sent across the ocean. It’s a very carbon-intensive process and it’s expensive. Then the first time it rains, 80% of that phosphorous will wash off into the local stream. It grows plants when it’s put on land. When put on water, it grows aquatic plants, which are algae, and that destroys the ecosystem.

So this is a way of mining phosphorous locally. Every sewage treatment plant is dumping phosphorous. We can remove that phosphorous. We turned it into a pelletized fertilizer, and that particular fertilizer will not dissolve in water, so it will never run off. It only dissolves when the plant roots release certain kinds of acids when they want to uptake more phosphorous. It will wait there for years, literally, to feed the plants. It’s a much more efficient system. It’s a system that’s being widely adopted. Chicago was significant because Chicago is the largest sewage plant on Earth, and the fact that they adopted our technology is a signal to the entire industry that this was now mainstream.

RLH: Could that technology be extrapolated to CAFOs, for instance? I mean, that’s one of the bigger issues with CAFOs is the runoff.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: It could be adapted to reduce phosphorous runoff. The problem is that CAFOs are really getting away with murder because a CAFO, Rachel— a hog produces ten times the amount of fecal waste by weight as a human being, so if you have a facility that has ten thousand hogs in it, it’s producing as much sewage as a city of a hundred thousand people. Smithfield has one plant in Utah—they call it Circle Four Farms—that has a million hogs on it, so it’s producing the same amount of waste as New York City every day.

There’s no difference between hog waste and human waste in terms of its danger to human health. They ought to have to have a sewage treatment plant that cleans it up. And yet, if they had to build that sewage treatment plan, it would drive the price of hogs up so that they could no longer function in the marketplace. Now a traditional farmer didn’t have to do that because a traditional farmer would take the waste from those hogs, spread it on his fields, grow corn, and feed the hogs, so it was a closed loop system. At least theoretically, it was a closed loop system.

What a CAFO is doing— A CAFO is a factory, and the manure is no longer a valuable byproduct. It is now a waste product that they want to dispose of, just like sewage, and they ought to have to build sewage treatment facilities but nobody’s making them do that because they have used political clout to escape the discipline of the free market and force the public to pay for their cost of production.

Danielle (caller): Is a vegan or a vegetarian diet being promoted at all to combat this issue of pollution from factory farming with animals? Because it doesn’t seem that that has been mentioned at all.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: That definitely would be a solution if we could persuade every American or most Americans to be vegan or vegetarian. I think they’d probably have a lot better health, and we’d definitely have a cleaner environment, and we’d have a lot more water because so much of our water goes into beef, pork, and poultry production. So ultimately, if we could do that, that would be the best thing. Until we get to that point where Americans are willing to adopt those kind of diets, we are in a kind of triage situation where we can use lawsuits to change behavior of the industry so that there’s a lot less production.

Matthew (email): Has your agency looked into the relationship between the eastern North Carolina commercial fishing industry and the NC DMF (Department of Marine Fisheries)? It is my understanding North Carolina has more liberal commercial fishing regulations than any other state on the eastern seaboard despite what the science shows.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.:  Yes, the Department of Marine Fisheries—like most of, like I would say all of the environmental agencies in North Carolina state government—are what we call captive agencies. They’re essentially sock puppets for the industry that they’re supposed to regulate. They represent usually not the public interest but the interest of the most powerful and the biggest polluters in the state. Unfortunately, wherever you see environmental injury, you’re also going to see a subversion of democracy, and it’s particularly acute here in North Carolina and particularly under the current governor, who is very vocal in his concept that the agencies that are supposed to regulate industry should actually be serving industry at its lowest level.

I have a number of companies, but I have one environmental company called ColorZen that has just opened a factory in North Carolina. And ColorZen is a company that owns a technique for dying cotton without consumptive use of water, so we can produce richer colors, better color fastness much quicker, using 75% less energy a third of the time, and we can do it without polluting the water, and today about 20% of the industrial water pollution on Earth is caused by cotton dying, and we have the capacity now to revolutionize that industry to stop pollution in the cotton dying industry, and it’s happening here in North Carolina. North Carolina has very, very strong apparel industry: the biggest dye house, the biggest mills, like Parkdale, in the country, and that industry is very interested in reducing its carbon imprint and reducing its pollution imprint.

Tim (caller): We have a small farm where we raise pork and chicken and soon we’ll be raising beef too, but we pasture raise all of our pork and our chickens, and we literally have people waiting in line to buy this product from us. We use all natural feed. We contract with a couple of grocery stores. We get their produce that they’re about to throw away and we feed that [to the animals]. And I was just wondering what his thoughts were about this farm-to-table movement that we’re seeing around the country. We’ve been fairly successful with it. We’ve got other small farmers that we associate with that have been successful with it. I was just wondering what his thoughts were on that, on that farm-to-table movement that we’re seeing.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: We applaud that. I think, ultimately, that’s one of the answers. People understand that they’re going to get healthier food, they’re going to get better quality food, they’re going to be supporting local agriculture. As you know, one of the impediments to switching over to organic agriculture is that you need a five year period where you can show there were no chemical pesticides used on the property, and that’s just a daunting impediment to most farmers. The other impediment is how to market their product because it is more expensive, at the outset at least, to grow food this way than the food that is being marketed by the big, by Smithfield, et cetera, and they control the supply chains to most of the marketing outfits. I’d love to know how you are marketing your product.

Tim (caller): There’s local farmers markets. There are several associations that go directly to the restaurants. Feast Down East is one that we’re associated with, and there’s again the local farmers market. People are looking for naturally-raised produce and proteins. We are not organic, and we do not advertise [as that]. We do advertise as non-GMO, which we can verify through the feed that we buy and the way we feed our chickens and pork, but word of mouth, church members, friends, I mean, we have some avenues. It’s difficult to get started, but once you do, we’re finding that people are coming back. The same thing with eggs. We have pasture-raised chicken layers, and I can sell every single egg I make. It’s basically word of mouth. It’s a lot of work, but it’s very rewarding when people come back and want your product again.

Susan (caller): How does the Waterkeeper Alliance partner with other organizations, like Nature Conservancy, perhaps, or the World Wildlife Fund, to address some of these significant challenges?

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: Like every social movement that’s successful, you need a lot of different approaches. Look at the Civil Rights Movement, you have the Black Panther Party on one side and you had the NAACP and SNCC and Martin Luther King on the other, and they all took different approaches to get to the same place. It’s the same way with the environmental movement. You have Nature Conservancy, which is a land purchasing or land trust organization. You have educational organizations. You have organizations that do legislation like NRDC.

The niche that we fill is law enforcement, and the reason that’s necessary is because we have wonderful environmental laws in this country, and if they were enforced, we really wouldn’t have that many environmental problems. The problem is that none of them are enforced, and the reason they’re not enforced is the capacity for the polluters to capture the regulatory process and disable enforcement. When we wrote these laws, we passed 28 environmental laws after 1970, and in almost all of those laws, we anticipated that industry would be able to disable the regulatory agencies and enforcement agencies. So in almost all of those laws, we included a unique provision called the citizen’s supervision that says, if the government fails to enforce the laws and somebody is conducting criminal acts, then any citizen can step into the shoes of the United States Attorney and prosecute that polluter in a federal court for penalties and injunctive relief. The waterkeepers have utilized those citizen provisions to enforce the laws when government fails us.

George (caller): I wanted to take issue with some of the facts that Mr. Kennedy was mentioning. My field is animal nutrition and I’ve been independently formulating feed for a variety of feed companies for as many as forty years. I want to say that, on this hormone issue, the hormones were experimented with back in the 1930s and 1940s, and since then, hormones have never and are not in use in animal feeds—in spite of what you might read on a label, on a Tyson bag at the grocery store that says “hormone free,” that’s more of a marketing ploy.

RLH: George, you’re saying that’s a meaningless designation?

George (caller): It’s a meaningless designation because hormones have not been used, are not used in any animal feed. Another issue about arsenicals. Arsenicals were a type of antibiotic that was used for growth promotion, much like most of the antibiotics that are used in the animal feed industry. But arsenicals were outlawed by USDA and FDA about four years ago, and they are no longer used in the animal industry at all.

Regarding phosphorous, the animal industry has done very well in trying to reduce the level of phosphorous across the board, in all their animal feeds. The advent of the technology of utilizing enzymes to help digest some of the phosphorous that’s bound up in corn and soybeans has been very beneficial so that the phosphorous that’s actually in the feed naturally becomes more available to the animal and thus reduces the amount of artificial phosphorous that has to be added, and that’s reduced the level of phosphorous in feeds by about one-third across the board, across every species of animal. Anyway, these are some facts that I thought we should correct that are going out on the air.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: You still have GMOs. You still have widespread use of subtherapeutic antibiotics, which has all kinds of problems that we didn’t talk about, including the creation of superbugs, which the FDA gave a warning about this week. The overuse of those antibiotics should have been outlawed long, long ago, but the food industry and the agriculture industry and the Farm Bureau have been fighting that tooth and nail. It’s something that’s terrible for the American people, terrible for humanity and yet we continue to do it.

Even if you reduce phosphorous by a third, it’s still a huge problem. And we’re seeing the biggest pollution issue—or at least arguably in this country for fresh water systems—is phosphorous discharges, and most of those are coming from animals. Every animal has phosphorous in it. You’re 1.5% phosphorous. Every animal is. When you slaughter an animal, that phosphorous is going to go into the environment. The food still contains large amounts of phosphorous, and the manure from these operations, the manure output is so vast that there’s no way that, even if you did 90% removal of phosphorous, it would create a huge phosphorous problem.

RLH: I want to talk for a second about transitioning to cleaner energy sources. You’ve been a big champion of this, of course. The New York Times recently published a piece about nuclear energy getting another serious look and this aging fleet of nuclear plants that we have. What is the Waterkeeper Alliance’s position on nuclear energy? Where is that going? Is that a potentially sustainable energy source? Is that the future of this country?

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.:  Waterkeeper Alliance doesn’t have a position on nuclear energy. My own position on nuclear energy is that it will be great whenever they make it safe and whenever they make it economical. Right now, it is neither of those. I believe in free market capitalism. The last nuclear power plant that was built was in Norway. It cost about 14.5 billion dollars per gigawatt to build. You can build a solar plant for about 2.7 billion per gigawatt, so why would you— We could make energy by burning prime rib if we wanted to, but why would you want to use the most expensive way to generate energy that we can, that’s out there?

There’s none of these utilities that will pay for the plant themselves. The only way these plants are ever built is with huge public subsidies. So, in terms of cost, they’re just not in the region to make them competitive with other renewables. In terms of safety, the industry will say it’s safe. My attitude toward that is, if you’re really safe, then get an insurance policy. That’s what everybody else does. This industry cannot get an insurance policy. And the insurance industry—this isn’t a bunch of hippies in tie-dye t-shirts who are saying they’re unsafe. It’s guys from Wall Street, from AIG and from the big insurance companies who are saying, “You’re too dangerous for us to ensure.” So, the industry had to go to Congress in a sleazy legislative maneuver in the middle of the night and get the Price-Anderson Act passed, which absolves them of any liability, or virtually all of the liability for nuclear accidents. Nobody else has that, and the insurance industry is the ultimate arbiter of risk in this country. We’re in a capitalist system. What I would say is, if you’re really safe, just get an insurance policy, and then we’ll all believe you.

RLH: The Obama administration recently pulled the mid-Atlantic region from its plan for offshore drilling for oil and gas, much to the relief of many coastal stakeholders. This was an issue up and down the east coast, as you probably know. Do mid-Atlantic coastal stakeholders have anything to worry about? Are we moving in the right direction from where you sit as president of the Waterkeeper Alliance?

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: That’s the right direction. The kind of oil and gas that we would be drilling for on the east coast is expensive. We shouldn’t be going after that kind of oil and gas at this point in the world’s history. We should be reducing oil and gas. We should be reducing our use. We should not be building infrastructure, particularly infrastructure that is going to continue to operate for thirty or fifty years. We should be making investments in wind and solar. Today in this country, we use about a thousand gigawatts of energy at peak demand. It costs about three billion dollars a gigawatt to replace that energy with solar or wind. That’s what we should be doing. It’s cheaper to build a solar plant today in this country in almost every state in this country than to build a gas plant. We should be focusing our energy on that rather than dinosaur fuels.

RLH: You flirted with running for office a couple of times. Is that in the future for you? Is that something you’d consider?

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: I think I’ll let my kids figure that one out. 

Rachel hosts and produces CoastLine, an award-winning hourlong conversation featuring artists, humanitarians, scholars, and innovators in North Carolina. The show airs Wednesdays at noon and Sundays at 4 pm on 91.3 FM WHQR Public Media. It's also available as a podcast; just search CoastLine WHQR. You can reach her at rachellh@whqr.org.