Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. — The YES! Weekly interview

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. will speak at Wait Chapel on the campus of Wake Forest University on Thursday, Nov. 3 as part of the Yadkin Riverkeeper's annual series of environmental speakers. Kennedy was named one of Time magazine's “Heroes for the Planet” for his success helping Riverkeeper lead the fight to restore the Hudson River. Kennedy will speak on "The Green Gold Rush: A Vision for Energy Independence, Jobs and National Wealth," beginning at 7 p.m. (courtesy photo)Type rest of the post here

Earlier this week,YES! Weekly staff writer Keith T. Barber had the opportunity to interview Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. via telephone. Kennedy serves as Chief Prosecuting Attorney for the Hudson Riverkeeper and President of Waterkeeper Alliance. He is also a Clinical Professor and Supervising Attorney at Pace University School of Law’s Environmental Litigation Clinic and is co-host of "Ring of Fire" on Air America Radio. Among Kennedy's published books are the New York Times’ bestseller Crimes Against Nature(2004). He will speak at Wake Forest University on Nov. 3 on "The Green Gold Rush."

Y!W: Are you aware that Duke Energy is proposing a 17-percent rate increase just two years after getting an 8 percent rate increase? Duke Energy has not committed to phasing out its coal-fired power plants. What’s at stake as energy companies plot their strategies for future growth?

RFK, Jr.: “[Duke Energy CEO] Jim Rogers has been interesting at Duke because he is one of the few people who will go to Capitol Hill and say to the political leadership that we need to transition off of coal and you need to give me the economic incentives to do it.

"I’m grateful. Compared to a lot of the other utility leaders that own coal plants, he’s one of the few that plays it straight in terms of acknowledging that coal is not a good future for America. At the same time, I think all these utilities need to transition to renewable energy and transition to conservation. We have LED light bulbs that give off better light and are superior to Edison light bulb that is 130 years old.

"We need to be shutting down these coal plants. Everybody knows they’re causing severe health problems downwind, and we’ve got cheaper, better ways of producing electricity. When they say coal is clean that’s a dirty lie. When they say coal is cheap, that’s a lie, too."

Kennedy noted that many freshwater species of fish in North Carolina contain dangerous levels of mercury.

In March 2006, the NC Department of Health and Human Services revised the mercury fish consumption advisory and greatly expanded the number of species that woman of childbearing age and children under 15 should not consume. The NCDHHS list of impaired fish include 17 species of ocean fish and 13 species of freshwater fish. There are only two man-made sources of mercury and one of them is the burning of coal.

"North Carolina was once known for its clean water in its lakes and streams, and now there’s not a single fish that hasn’t been impaired by high levels of mercury. There is no child in North Carolina who can go fish at the fishing hole with their mother and father and bring their catch home and eat it safely due to high levels of mercury."

Kennedy also stated that one out of every six women has dangerous levels of mercury in their womb and the particulates emitted from coal-fired power plants is responsible for 47,000 deaths a year.

"To say coal is cheap is to ignore the externalized cost of coal," Kennedy said.

Y!W: The Center for Global Development ranks Duke Energy’s Belews Creek plant in Forsyth County as the 28th highest CO2-emitting power plant in the nation, belching an estimated 13.6 million tons of carbon dioxide into the local environment annually. In 2009, there were 1,436 coal-powered units at electrical utilities across the nation, according to the US Department of Energy. Jim Warren, the president of NC WARN, said he firmly believes Duke Energy can be moved in a new direction that focuses on developing renewable sources of energy rather than build more coal-fired and nuclear power plants. Do you agree? What can ordinary citizens do to force our utility companies to make environmentally sound decisions?

RFK, Jr.: “Ultimately what we want to do is to rationalize the marketplace and you need the NC General Assembly to get behind this, which is to create a set of rules where companies including utilities like Duke cannot externalize their costs, cannot pretend these costs do not exist and make the marketplace serve the public so utility managers can get rich by doing the right thing.

"The marketplace should reward good behavior which is efficiency and right now, the marketplace rewards bad behavior.
Currently the rules of the marketplace were written by the oil, coal and natural gas industry. What we want is a marketplace that is rationalized that serves the public rather than the utilities that burn coal."

Y!W: A study by the NC Department of Health and Human Services that estimated at least 13,677 children per year are born in the state with blood mercury levels that place them at risk for lifelong learning disabilities, fine motor and attention deficits, and lowered IQ, according to the department’s website. How great a threat is coal and the mining of coal to the sustainability of our planet?

RFK, Jr.: “It’s the biggest threat on issues like global warming and acidification of the ocean. The addiction to carbon is the greatest threat to national security and our prosperity. We’re borrowing a billion dollars a day from nations that don’t share our values to buy a billion dollars worth of oil."

"Brazil, which has decarbonized its transportation system, is experiencing an economic revival and replaced France as the fifth most prosperous country on the planet. What happened to America’s can-do attitude?"

Kennedy noted that he serves on the board of directors of Tesla, the all-electric sports car manufacturer.

"From a performance point of view, it’s the best car in America. It’s totally electric. It costs 6 cents a mile to run an electric car. An internal combustion engine costs 60 cents a mile. The marketplace is going to drive us into renewables, electric, solar and wind. The question is, are the Chinese going to get their first? Or are we going to continue to rely on Middle Eastern oil?"

Y!W: Are you aware of the current battle for the Yadkin River between Alcoa and the state of North Carolina? What’s at stake in this fight?

RFK, Jr.: “It’s a human rights issue. Are we going to allow our waterways to be controlled by private corporations or powerful entities within society or are we going to make sure the commonwealth remains in the hands of the people.

"These are ancient rights. It goes back to ancient Rome; it’s in the Magna Carta. The waterways belong to the people. Everybody has a right to use them. No one has a right to use them in a way that is injurious to others. The first act of tyranny always includes acts by powerful interests to control the public trust, the public commons.

"The test of democracy is how it controls the lands. We all have a right to clean air and water and public lands. The question is, will those public trust lands fall into the hands of powerful interests? Is America going to be a feudal kleptocracy or a democracy?"

Y!W: Do you support the Occupy Wall Street movement and the other “Occupy” movements it has spawned like Occupy Winston-Salem and Occupy Greensboro?

RFK, Jr.: “Yes, absolutely. I think it’s one of the most hopeful things that’s happened in our country. The biggest threat in America is that citizens will not control their own democracy. Corporations should not control our democracy."

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