Dark Rivers Run Deep

An interview with Robert Kennedy, Jr. and John Cronin

San Francisco 1998 © Sally Richards

The Hudson River…the watery boundary between New York and New Jersey. It’s a landmark, an icon known for its beauty and, at one time, for its deadly pollution. For many who have lived or currently reside in the area it marks memories of swimming with childhood friends, romantic rowboat rides…a living river where generations have pulled bounties of fresh fish from her dark waters. This is the watershed that John Cronin and Robert Kennedy, Jr. embraced, defended and finally healed. For Cronin it was a personal vendetta to settle, for Kennedy it was a cause. As the two men drew a line on her shore to commence war, their selves disappeared in the battle and the only thing that matters now is that the river won.

I had mixed feelings about meeting Robert Kennedy, Jr., expectations that come with the Kennedy moniker, and some of my own. I’ve met a ton of stars in the entertainment and political arenas, and although it disappoints many, I just don’t get a rise from their starpower. What can I say? It’s my job; people are just people, by the end of the day everyone needs to squat down on a toilet, and the higher the pedestal the harder they fall. But when I met Robert Kennedy, Jr., I was truly impressed. From his broad smile, to his firm handshake and his, “Call me Bobby,” I felt differently. He had humility and good manners. He had charisma like I had never encountered. I haven’t met any of the other Kennedys, but if they all had this much charisma, I could see what gets them all into so much trouble. But, this was the good Kennedy, the Kennedy son who keeps clean, loves his wife — and as far as the press knows, only his wife — and is the picture-perfect father.

The two men sat across from each other and were quite at ease. Cronin is looking laidback in his clothes that could have come off an Eddie Bauer rack, his hair a bit windblown as though he’d been pulled directly off the hull of a boat. Kennedy, warm and personable, dressed in a once crisp suit that had been traveling, his unmistakable Kennedy facial features relaxed. It’s very early on a weekday morning. From the office window, morning traffic crawls across the Bay Bridge on a particularly socked-in San Francisco morning. We joke and make small talk until the coffee comes. The two have the kind of camaraderie between them that comes from being old friends who’ve been through hell and high water...urr, make that hell and polluted water.

They looked beat, the kind of beat you only get from being on a book tour. Smiling, being cordial, attending receptions with great food you’ll never have the opportunity to eat because you’re being passed around the room like a serving tray so everyone can get a piece of you, posing, shaking hands with people you’ll never see again, signing thousands of books, traveling thousands of miles in a few months…and the endless interviews conducted by people who may have never read your book.

As I sat there with Cronin and Kennedy all these things raced through my head and I grasped for the objective, appropriate questions. So, of course, I did something completely inappropriate if you’re a play by the book reported. But, I’ve already told you that’s not my life. I had keyed in on the commonality among us and brought out the dowsing rods I had made for them. I also have a particular interest in all water; I’m a dowser. Not much of a useable skill in the Big City, but a skill that’s popular with my friends who live off the grid in the mountains of Santa Cruz. I showed Cronin and Kennedy how to hold the rods and I put my coffee cup under the large boardroom-sized table so they could dowse it out. John got the swing of it right away and immediately asked what the theory behind dowsing. The whole thing is there really is no theory, or rather, there are lots, but none of them stick to the wall. Bobby, who had gone from Mr. Kennedy to Bobby during our introduction. moved about the room, placing the rods over the water pitcher and our heads trying to kick them into gear. It just wasn’t working for him, so I reassured him that not all every metal that the rods were made of worked for all people. With that, he sat back down in his chair and we started the interview.

I was most curious about how the two men, who were so different from each other, would come together in this common cause. I had only just received the book they had written together a few days before, and confirmed an interview also about that same time. I hadn’t had an opportunity to do much background research, I had only jotted down a few notes while looking at the reviews and bios on the Internet. And I had read the book. With that, I began my questioning. They had been on the book tour for a while and moved fluidly through my queries, passing them to and fro like seasoned tennis partners. There answers were flawless, but to someone who had read the previous interviews and the book, I sensed they were a bit canned, so I started doubling back on the questions and asking the opposite one of them who had answered originally. It’s a good tactic and I began to push back where I found hesitancies and the real interview began. Everyone became comfortable and the caffeine started to kick in.

“Penn Central Railroad began vomiting oil from four-and-a-half-foot pipes into the Hudson River,” said Kennedy, brow furrowed, and in that straight-up fashion for which he is known, “It blackened the beaches and made fish taste like diesel so it couldn’t be sold.”

The dumping that Kennedy speaks of happened when he was just a kid, but he talks of it with such disdain it’s as though it happened yesterday. “The commercial fishermen were primarily veterans from WW II and Korea and very patriotic. The men were so angry at the government agencies that wouldn’t help them that they got together and began talking about blowing up the pipes,” Kennedy explains, calmly nodding his head with an expression that says he understands their frustration.

While Kennedy recalls this era in the Hudson River’s history, Cronin was physically living his childhood in the pollution’s dark residue.“I was part of the community living on the Hudson River where the pollution changed the relationship between the people and the river,” says Cronin, with a level glare and a slow shaking of his head that sums up his young memories. “I was in that first generation of kids who didn’t have much interaction with the Hudson River. I was told that the river was unfit to swim in. My grandfather was a fisherman on the river — my father learned how to swim in the river and dated my mother in a paddleboat on the river. Years later, the question I asked myself was, ‘What happened to my family’s river?’”

The twine that brought them together was woven as Cronin’s frustration over the Hudson Valley River becoming a dying ecosystem grew. The watershed was thick with toxic chemicals, poisoned plants and wildlife species that were, more often than not, dying out year after year. The Hudson River was growing old with death as Cronin became a commercial fisherman and Kennedy an attorney. Cronin’s livelihood was completely wiped out as the river had nothing left to offer. Every species of fish in the Hudson was deemed toxic and unfit for human consumption.

While commercial fishing on the Hudson, Cronin had made a friend named Bob Boyle. Boyle was writing an article about recreational fishing on the Hudson for Sports Illustrated when they met. While researching the article, Boyle was surprised to learn just how badly the Hudson was polluted. His curiosity got the better of him and he began looking up archaic maritime laws that might somehow offer help. He wondered if there had ever been a law forgotten by time that made polluting illegal. His research paid off and he found one on the books — still completely enforceable in this modern day — that makes it illegal for anyone to pollute waterways in the United States. It also set stiff fines for violators…with half of the fine awarded to the whistleblower who exposes the crime.

Considering, at the time, the ongoing toxins dumping into the Hudson River, this was an amazing find for Boyle and for the Hudson River community. The law was put on the books in 1889 and had never been used to prosecute a polluter. Boyle rallied the commercial fishermen and the Hudson River community and brought a case against the Penn Central Railroad. The good guys won and Boyle used the bounty to form the nonprofit organization The Hudson Riverkeeper. The organization built a boat to patrol the Hudson River that housed “The Riverkeeper,” the official watcher of the river. In 1983, Cronin came onboard as the organization’s watcher.

By this time, Kennedy had moved to the Hudson Valley and the paths of the two men crossed. The two men, whom may never have met under ordinary circumstances, pulled together in a common cause. Kennedy, who became the chief prosecuting attorney for the Hudson Riverkeeper, found a creative way to help the organization and build the next generation of environmental attorneys. Kennedy also held the title of senior attorney for the National Defense Council and professor and supervising attorney at the Environmental Legislation Clinic at Pace University. Kennedy found a way to grant power to those who had never had it before — law students. And what an awesome power it is.

“I have ten students who, by a special court order, are allowed to practice law under my supervision,” says Kennedy of his unique mentoring program. “John brings us polluters and we sue them — we’ve won more than 150 cases against polluters, that’s 95 percent of our cases. The students love it — they think it’s the best course they’ve ever had,” and adds with some humor, “That has very little to do with my ability. It has to do with the fact that they’re actually given the responsibility that they won’t have for maybe another 10 years. They’re going into federal courts, trying cases, arguing motions and running the cases — cases against some of the most seasoned attorneys and some of the largest law firms.”

“And they win,” interjects Cronin enthusiastically. “That’s the thrill of it — to see them win. It’s exciting — more than one of Bobby’s students has thrown up in the courtroom toilet.”

Cronin and Kennedy joke, trying to remember the names of all of the students who have lost their lunches to courtroom jitters. An observer can tell you that these men, whose lives started out so far apart, have grown accustomed, even fond, of working with each other in the good times and even under a great deal of stress. They comfortably weave in and out of the interview and finish each other’s sentences, which makes for interesting conversation and even more thrilling quote editing.

They are excited about the future and look forward to changing the world one lawsuit at a time. They talk of the Hudson Riverkeeper as well as Baykeeper organizations blooming around the country — 23 of them from Alaska to Georgia, with more being approved for membership every day.

The dynamic, persistent duo wrote a book together, The Riverkeepers (Scribner, 1998), that chronicles their adventures.

“What’s remarkable about the Hudson success is that it started 30 years ago by a small group of people who decided they could change the river,” says Cronin of the growth that the grassroots organization has experienced. “The Hudson Riverkeeper has forced polluters to spend more than a half a billion dollars in restitution to reform the river.”

“Today, the Hudson River is a model ecosystem protection success story,” says Kennedy. “We’ve brought that river back from the dead. The model we’ve created on the Hudson River is being replicated all over the country. Here in San Francisco, the Baykeeper is a great success. We look forward to the day when there’s a Baykeeper or Riverkeeper on every significant body of water in America. The philosophy behind Riverkeeper is that rivers and bays are owned by the people. We’re not protecting it for the fishes or birds — we’re protecting it because it enriches us. It’s really about protecting our own backyard, our community — our quality of life.”