“Until little over a year ago, Oregon’s environmental record was regarded as one of the top in the country,” Robert F. Kenndy Jr. told hundreds of PSU attendees Saturday.
“But now it ranks among the bottom because of the Property Rights Referendum that passed last year.”
The property rights measure, approved by Oregon voters in November 2000, Kennedy said, prohibits the government from passing or enforcing an environmental law unless the government pays all the affected property owners the cost of complying with that law.
“If the government had to pay people to obey the law, it simply could not print enough money,” he said. “If the government had to pay you not to burn toxics in the air or not to dump sewage in the waterways, it would cease to exist.”
Kennedy said the property rights initiative is deceptive.
“It pretends to help private property rights … but what it really does is it gives constitutional protection to the right to pollute.”
And nobody, Kennedy said, has a right to pollute.
“Every child in Portland has a right, whether they’re black or white, rich or poor, humble or noble, to put a fishing rod over their shoulder and go down to the Willamette and pull out a salmon and bring it home to their family, and feed it to them without the fear that they are going to poison somebody in their family.”
“And those are rights that have been taken away from people in this state and all over the place,” he continued.
Kennedy doesn’t only use words to motivate people to fight for environmental rights. At Pace University, New York, he uses grades to prompt his students to action.
“We give (our students) four polluters to sue at the beginning of the semester,” he said. “They file complaints, they do discovery, they do depositions, they go to court and argue their cases. And if they don’t win the case, they don’t pass the course.”
The audience chuckled. But Kennedy wasn’t joking.
“Since we’ve started this clinic, we’ve brought over 300 successful lawsuits against Hudson River polluters. We force polluters on the river to spend well over, now, $2 billion on remediation of the river.”
As a result, the Hudson River now produces more pounds of fish per acre and more biomass per gallon than any other waterway in the North Atlantic.
“Today, the Hudson River is an international model for ecosystem protection,” Kennedy said. “This is a waterway that was a national joke in 1966, an open sewer that turned color sometimes two or three times a week, depending on what color they were painting the trucks at the GM plant in Terrytown.”
As chief prosecuting attorney for New York’s Hudson Riverkeepers, Kennedy has largely focused his attention on cleaning up the Hudson River. But he is also concerned with Oregon’s ecology.
“For me, destroying the Willamette, the Tualitan, the forest you have out here, is the moral equivalent to tearing the last pages out of the last Bible or Torah or Talmud or Koran on earth.”
Near the end of the address, Kennedy revealed his underlying reason for fighting to save the environment: to him, nature is a source of learning we must preserve.
“God talks to human beings through many factors: through each other, through organized religion, through the great books of those religions, through wise people, through art and literature and music and poetry, but nowhere with such force and detail and texture and grace and joy as through creation.”
Kennedy closed with a slogan well known among circles of environmental activists.
“We didn’t inherit this planet from our ancestors, we borrowed it from our children,” he said.
Jack Ohman, an alumnus and a political cartoonist for the Oregonian, introduced Kennedy, the son of former Attorney General Robert Kennedy as “one of our nations leading environmental lawyers and advocates.”