An interview with Robert F. Kennedy Jr., attorney, environmental activist and author of Crimes Against Nature: How George W. Bush and His Corporate Pals Are Plundering the Country and Hijacking Our Democracy 

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: The big thing that I've been thinking about is — and seeing the reaction that people have had [to the film] over the last couple of days — this is the last refuge for investigative journalism. Really, the only way to win this battle is democracy. You couldn't do this in the Berkshires, you couldn't do it in the Adirondacks. If you blew up a mountain in Colorado or New York, you'd be put in jail right away. And you'd never get a permit for anything else. People would think you're criminally insane. If you tried to bury 100 feet of the Hudson, we'd make sure you were in jail.

But they can bury 2,500 miles of rivers and streams, and blow up 500 mountains, and nothing happens because nobody finds out about it. A lot of that is the media is covering Charlie Sheen. This is a much bigger story, but nobody is covering it. It's dawned on me, as I've seen the reaction to the movie, how critical it is.

How's the reaction been? Do people have that wake-up moment? Are they appalled?

I didn't have anything to do with the production of the movie; in fact, I didn't even see the movie until it was finished.

But you've been all over the country on this issue.

I've gone all over the country to the openings and seen the press on it, and I've realized how important it is. I've been down there for 27 years watching this, and gotten used to the fact that government is in the pocket of these polluters. Today a reporter asked me, "Why doesn't the government do something about this? How can the government let this happen?" And you know, I have to go back 20 years to when I was thinking like that. A new, refreshing dose of indignation and outrage is exactly what this needs.

What do you mean you have to go back 20 years feel like that?

I have to go back 20 years to when I was still thinking that, "Oh yeah, this is a crime and government will fix it if you just talk to them logically." This is what I learned in civics class and what my family believed in. I've spent 27 years trying to make government try to do its job of stopping polluters, and I'm used to the fact that money rules the roost, and logic and democracy and public health are quickly subverted when there's money to be made. It's just refreshing for me to hear somebody who still believes in those ideals. That's what we found in West Virginia, too. This community was radicalized because they believe in democracy and believe in America and believe that government was there to serve them, and that corporations were a beneficent force. And when they found out the whole game was rigged against them, instead of just lying down and taking it, they fought back.

How has civil disobedience changed the discourse — if it has — in these smaller communities when it comes to coal?

It's the last thing we've got left. The press has been subverted. The judiciary has been subverted. The agencies have been captured. The politicians have been corrupted. Transparency has disappeared, and the zoning laws have been taken — local democracy has been taken away from them. When that happens, the only thing you have left is civil disobedience. They're doing it effectively.

There have been 2,500 people now arrested [in West Virginia]. That's four times the number of people who participated in the Selma march.

How do you get your hooks into a politician or into one of these corporations and try to move something?

We have to rely on some level the same as the civil rights marchers did, on federal laws. Because the state political landscapes are so completely dominated by the power of Massey. I debated Don Blankenship a year ago — I did a televised debate with him. During that debate I asked him, "Is it possible for your company to make a profit without breaking the law?" He said no, it's not. At the time, I was asking specifically about his record of pollution — during the previous five years, Massey had violated the Clean Water Act 67,000 times, and then tens of thousands of violations of mining laws and safety laws and labor laws, etc. That is an admission that this is a criminal enterprise.

Their whole business plan is based upon their capacity to violate the laws and get away with it, to dismantle the agencies in West Virginia who are there to protect the public and enforce the laws. In some ways, we really need in this case the federal government.

Why is it necessary for outsiders to come to Appalachia and help stop this?

Massey owns West Virginia, and so West Virginia can't save itself. Massey is an out-of-state company — it's not a West Virginia company, and a large part of its workforce (its very small workforce in the state) is from out of state, too. But the communities that are being destroyed — two-thirds of the people of West Virginia by every poll oppose mountaintop removal, but not a single politician in the state [does]. That's because, one suspects, of the huge donations and just the political power wielded by King Coal.

In Crimes Against Nature, you laid out pretty clearly how former President Bush took apart the entire regulatory apparatus we had for coal. Where are we now in the Obama administration?

I think Lisa Jackson is probably the best EPA administrator we've ever had, and she understands the importance of stopping mountaintop removal and transitioning into a renewable energy economy. But President Obama's got a big plate in front of him, so he doesn't always do exactly what we want him to do. Sometimes I think he has to choke out the phrase "clean coal." But he's got 22 coal-state senators, many of whom are Democrats. He needs those guys to pass his national health care and end two wars and save the auto companies and do the other things he's trying to do. So sometimes he has to do things we don't want him to do. They could do a lot better, particularly on the larger issues of ending the subsidies to coal and helping our country transition to clean energy.

Does coal have to be a part of the future?

No, absolutely not. And it won't be part of the future. It's going to be driven out by market forces anyway. Right now, one of the companies I'm involved with is building a solar-thermal plant in the Mojave Desert. We're building it for the same price you build a coal plant, but once you build it, it's free energy forever. So if the peak cost of coal is the fuel cost after you build the plant, we're building this — it's one of the biggest power plants ever built. ... Once you build a coal plant, your big costs are just beginning.


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