By Kris Kitto - 06/01/11 10:12 PM EDT
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. isn’t from West Virginia, but he’s taken on one of the state’s most controversial issues — mountaintop-removal mining. Not only does he emerge as a main character in the new documentary “The Last Mountain,” he’s rallying several members of the Kennedy family — 10, by his latest count — to appear with him next week at West Virginia’s Blair Mountain in a protest organized by a mine workers union.
Kennedy spoke to The Hill about how he became interested in mountaintop-removal mining, what he thinks about politicians in Washington and the issues he’d confront if he weren’t so busy working on the environment.
How’d you get interested in mountaintop-removal?
I’ve been litigating against the coal industry in West Virginia probably close to 25 years. My family has deep roots in Appalachia, going back to 1960, when West Virginia gave the Democratic nomination to my uncle, President Kennedy. But I’m interested in it because it’s really a template of all the stuff I’ve done on the environment in the past 27 years.
What was the most surprising thing you learned in the course of making this documentary?
How much democracy had been subverted in this state, and how frightened virtually everybody in the state is of the mining industry — from local legislators to public officials.
The movie is a story about local people who try to stand up to the industry. Each one of the public officials, Democrats and Republicans, has said, essentially, “We cannot go up against this industry; it is too powerful.”
If you could pick one member of Congress whom you’d like most to see this film, who would it be?
I suppose it would be the West Virginia senators, [Democrats Joe] Manchin and [Jay] Rockefeller.
What does it mean that Manchin, the West Virginia governor at the time this documentary was made, is now in the Senate?
I don’t think it means much. The mechanisms of government in that state have been so corrupted from top to bottom that it’s hard for anybody to stand up against that industry.
Have you discussed the issue with him, or with Rockefeller?
Yes, I have, over the years — many times. Generally speaking, I think that they spout the industry talking points — we need the jobs, we need the revenue — and they don’t really want to listen to the facts, that this is costing the state in revenue, that the mining is costing jobs.
How do the politics of mountaintop-removal break down in Washington?
A lot of the carbon issue breaks down Republican and Democrat, but it’s not that easy, because there’s 11 coal states, and there’s closer to 30 states that receive most of their energy from coal. And the senators from those states, whether Republican or Democrat, tend to vote to support the industry. So I would say, generally, on carbon issues, the Democrats are better than the Republicans, but on mountaintop-removal and coal, neither party is particularly good. There are some people who are good, who are indeed outraged. I’d say starting off with [Rep.] Ed Markey [D-Mass.]. There are a lot of people in the House who are good on the issue, but there are not that many from the coal states. That’s what you need.
The film mentions your lobbying President Obama about mountaintop-removal when he stopped in on a meeting you were having with Rahm Emanuel so that he could express his condolences on the death of your uncle, Ted Kennedy. Was that something you planned to bring up if you saw him that day?
I really didn’t think I was going to see him that day, but I’d spoken to him in the past on several other occasions on energy policy, and he’s always listened. I was pleased with the response.
What was your uncle’s stance on mountaintop-removal? Did you talk to him about it at all?
Yeah, Teddy was great on the issue. He was indignant. He was pals with [the late Sen. Robert] Byrd [D-W.Va.] and Rockefeller. He was really good pals with Byrd. They used to make songs for each other and paint paintings of each other.
I spent a lot of time complaining about it … to Byrd and Rockefeller, and they would change the subject.
Byrd had a change. The last thing that he did was he wrote an editorial saying we need to get out of this mess . … He did his mea culpa on mountaintop-removal.
What’s your strategy for lobbying in Washington?
The environmental movement doesn’t have the money, and money talks in Washington — especially since the Citizens United decision. It puts the environment at a huge disadvantage. It puts the large corporations in the wheelhouse. So our strategy is trying to make democracy work. We try to inform the public.
If members of Congress were to see this movie, what would you want them to take away from it?
We’re destroying America’s heritage, our patrimony and our essential values. Specifically, they should pass the Appalachian Restoration Act. That would be the specific takeaway, and that we should transition to a new energy economy.
What’s the biggest environmental problem threatening the Washington, D.C., area?
There’s a nearby coal plant in Maryland — that’s definitely an issue here for people. One out of every four black children in D.C. has asthma. If you asked one of those kids what the biggest issue is, it’d be carbon emission and air quality.
I think the Anacostia River is a big issue for the area. That’s a drag on the economy.
If you were to pick an issue that you haven’t worked on yet to work on in the future, what would it be?
Campaign finance reform … I think I’m most effective in staying in my sweet spot, which is environment, but it’s all connected.
To recommend a political personality for 20 Questions, call Kris Kitto at (202)628-8539 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.