Oprah Talks to Bobby Kennedy Jr.
Bobby: Three of my boys. We have an asthma epidemic in this country. A 2003 study done in Harlem indicates that one in four black children in America's cities has asthma. The principal trigger is bad air—notably ozone and particulates that primarily come from the hundreds of power plants that burn coal illegally. It has been against the law for 17 years to burn coal without removing these two pollutants. But in states where corporations dominate the political process, the plants were not forced to clean up. The Clinton administration was prosecuting the worst 51 plants. But this is an industry that has donated more than $100 million to President Bush and the Republican Party since 2000, and one of the first things this White House did was to get the Justice Department and EPA to drop all those lawsuits. The top three enforcers at the EPA all resigned their jobs in protest. These enforcers weren't appointed by Democrats. They were people who'd worked through the Reagan and Bush administrations. Then the White House abolished the New Source rule, which was the heart and soul of the Clean Air Act. Now that there's no requirement for plants to clean up the ozone and particulates, the plants that already did it are at a competitive disadvantage in the marketplace. So the good guys are being punished! Plus I'll be able to watch my children gasp for air on bad air days because somebody gave money to a politician. The decision to abolish the New Source rule kills 18,000 Americans every year—six times the number killed in the World Trade Center attacks.
Oprah: Why is asthma so predominant among urban black children?
Bobby: There's a lot of suggestion that urban black neighborhoods are often next to incinerators, sewer plants, and highways, so children are breathing in diesel fuel. They don't put those coal-burning power plants in Beverly Hills. They don't put them next to golf courses. The poor always shoulder a disproportionate burden of environmental pollution. Four out of five toxic waste dumps in America are in black neighborhoods. The largest dump in America is in Emelle, Alabama, which is more than 90 percent black. The highest concentration of toxic waste dumps is on the South Side of Chicago. The most contaminated zip code in California is East L.A. Navajo youth develop sexual organ cancers at 17 times the rate of other Americans because of the thousands of tons of toxic uranium tailings that have been dumped on their reservations.
> Environmentalism has become the most important civil rights issue. The role of government is to protect the commons: the air we breathe, the water we drink, the fisheries, the wildlife, the public lands. Those resources are our social safety net. During the Great Depression when thousands lost their jobs in New York, they went down to the Hudson River to catch fish so they could feed their families. New York's constitution says the fish of the state belong to the people. Whether you're young or old, rich or poor, humble or noble, black or white, you have an absolute right to go down to the Hudson, pull out a striped bass, and proudly feed it to your family. But we don't own the fish anymore—the General Electric Company owns the fish. Because they put PCBs in the river, it's now illegal to sell those fish in the marketplace. So the battle is over whether we're going to continue allowing the commonwealth to be privatized by powerful political entities.
Oprah: I hear you don't even eat fish these days.
Bobby: No, I eat fish. I don't watch my diet. I eat fast food and potato chips.