Toxic Waterways: How Kennedy Would Save Five of America’s Most Ailing Rivers

Toxic Waterways: How Kennedy Would Save Five of America’s Most Ailing Rivers
American Values 2024 | January 26, 2024

For over forty years, ever since achieving his law degree, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has been best known as a champion of cleaning up the environment. He’d grown up in both rural and aquatic settings, accompanying his siblings on fishing and whitewater rafting trips – and observing his father’s outrage at the condition of the Hudson River. It was then the most polluted waterway in the country, so toxic that young Bobby wasn’t allowed to swim or eat the fish.

So it was fitting that his baptism in environmental protection came with the Hudson Riverkeeper organization in 1983, patrolling and nailing polluters on the spot. Working with commercial fishermen whose livelihoods had been decimated, Kennedy mounted dozens of lawsuits against powerful corporations including ExxonMobil and Monsanto, enlisting students into the fight as a founding professor of Pace University’s Environmental Law Clinic.

Once a national disgrace, the Hudson River transformed into flourishing fisheries and swimmable beaches, inspiring the creation of riverkeepers all across the country. During the 1990s, much of Kennedy’s energy went into forging a pioneering agreement to preserve the entire New York watershed, a historic transfer of wealth from city water consumers to fund economic vitality and environmental protection in the upstate Catskill Mountains. This also marked his entry into high-level politics, forging alliances across party lines and leading the state’s Republican governor George Pataki to say he could hardly wait for Kennedy to run for his office.

Kennedy’s Waterkeeper Alliance, founded at the turn of the Millenium, expanded the riverkeeper concept to some 350 localities in 46 countries. While closing down chemical companies in China, alleviating sewage treatment in Colombia, and stopping Australia from approving a new coal mine, the Alliance became the largest water protection group on the planet.

Not surprisingly, Kennedy put himself on the line to stop the U.S. Navy’s practice bombing on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, serving a month in prison for “civil disobedience.” Or that, two decades later, he traveled to East Palestine, Ohio, following a train derailment that caused a massive spill of contaminants and carcinogens and sent a plume of butyl acetate floating down the Ohio River resulting in a massive fish-kill.

Around that same time, Kennedy said upon announcing his candidacy for president: “You’ll hear this trope from the big polluters and their indentured servants on Capitol Hill that we have to choose between economic prosperity and environmental protection. That’s a false choice. We ought to be measuring our economy based upon how it produces jobs and the dignity of those jobs, and how it preserves the value of the assets of our community.”

How would a President Kennedy address the ongoing crisis of polluted waterways in our country? On December 19, 2023, Kennedy posted this statement; “One of my top priorities as an environmental president will be to get cancer-causing PFAS and other ‘forever chemicals’ out of our food, water, and environment.”

Following its inception in the early 1970s to enforce the landmark Clean Air and Clean Water acts, the EPA was hamstrung during the Reagan, Bush, and Trump administrations. Programs such as the Superfund toxic waste cleanup all but dried up. In speeches all across the country, Kennedy lambasted the agency’s “revolving door,” whereby agency officials and corporate interests exchanged positions on a regular basis. For them, he created the label “biostitutes.” In 2023, the EPA announced new priorities to protect communities from pollution. But critics assert that none of the initiatives go far enough.

So let’s take a look at what research indicates are our five most toxic rivers, and what a revitalized EPA under an RFK Jr. administration should do about them.


We’ll start with the river basin suffering from the Norfolk Southern train derailment’s release of more than a million pounds of dioxin-containing vinyl chloride early in 2023.

OHIO RIVER: This is one of the nation’s largest and most important watersheds, providing over five million Americans with drinking water. The nearly thousand-mile long river flows through or borders six states: Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Each year, over 184 million tons of cargo are transported on the Ohio River, and it is home to more than 160 species of fish.

Yet for decades, the river has served as a dumping ground for industries and local cities, leaving behind toxic contaminants such as mercury while nutrient runoff from fertilizers causes algae blooms. In 2015, the EPA designated the river one of the most polluted in the U.S. In 2020, a report by the Environment America Research and Policy Center found more toxic substances being tossed into the Ohio than any other waterway – some 41 million pounds including chemicals linked to cancer, birth defects, and developmental problems. These discharges came primarily from steel or aluminum manufacturers, coal-fired power plants, petrochemical plants and other businesses.

It’s a prime example of what are called PFAS, or “forever chemicals,” because their carbon-fluorine chains are among the strongest chemical bonds in nature and break down very slowly. Kentucky officials found these “in the tissue of every single fish they tested, some at extremely high levels” in 2022. Linked to cancer and other health impacts, “forever chemicals” have been detected at unsafe levels there in at least 38 drinking water systems.

The recent derailment in East Palestine resulted in the controlled burn-off of five train cars full of vinyl chloride. While this chemical dissipates in air, it may persist for years in soil and water, according to crop scientist Murray McBride of Cornell University. And the highly toxic dioxin carcinogen is released when polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is burned, long known to be extremely resistant to environmental degradation.

Kennedy is currently representing a thousand victims of the train wreck in litigation. As he said at the close of 2023, “I believe the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio was the result of corporate capture. We plan to prove that this disaster was caused by the type of mechanical failure that could easily be detected and prevented by modern sensors, but for years federal regulators have permitted train operators to prioritize pocketing profits over investing in safety measures.”

MISSISSIPPI RIVER: The second longest river in America, its 2,350 miles flowing across ten states before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi boasts a barge port system significant to national trade (500 million tons of goods shipped annually). In terms of habitat diversity and biological productivity, the Mississippi ranks among the world’s major river systems and is the primary source of drinking water for about 18 million Americans in 50 cities.

Yet Mark Twain’s legendary tributaries are impaired by excess sediment, bacteria, mercury, PCBs and phosphorus. Bacteria pour into the waters from leaking septic systems, wastewater treatment plants, farm animals or wild animals. Fish consumption guidelines are in place throughout the river’s range. The main contaminants found are PCBs, which Kennedy has been fighting to eliminate since his early days on the Hudson. Although banned in 1976, PCBs were once used in electrical transformers and other products and do not decompose easily, accumulating in sediments at the river bottom.

New data reveal that levels of chloride, one of the elements that make up salt, have increased by more than a third since the late 1980s across the entire Upper Mississippi River basin, which extends from the headwaters in Minnesota to southern Illinois. Road salt is typically a dominant source in colder states, and chloride also doesn’t break down in water over time. Toxic amounts can kill freshwater aquatic plants and animals, leading to harmful algae blooms. By adding more and more salt to the water, the ecosystem starts acting more like an estuary, an area where a freshwater river or stream meets the ocean.

It is a thick soup indeed. Regulated industries released about 94.5 million pounds of nitrates into the Mississippi basin in 2020, accounting for almost half of all reported toxic releases nationwide. And in 2023, microplastics were found in all fish species and all five sites studied along the mainstream river.

Little wonder that, as Kennedy has pointed out, the chronic disease rate in America has soared to more than half the population over the past several decades. PCB and mercury exposures are well known to pose a wide variety of health problems, from cancer and conception to the nervous system.

TENNESSEE RIVER: Unique geologically because it begins its journey southward but then turns north until it reaches Paducah, Kentucky where it empties into the Ohio, the Tennessee is the country’s fifth largest river system. More than five million people rely on the river and its tributaries for drinking water. And the Tennessee possesses such incredible biodiversity that some experts liken it to an underwater rainforest, with nesting sites for bald eagles, osprey and great blue herons, approximately 230 species of fish, and 100 species of mussels making it one of the most important commercial mussel sites in the world.

Yet the Tennessee is impaired by microplastics, industrial and household chemicals, pharmaceuticals, raw sewage and pesticides. The EPA estimated that nearly three million pounds of industrial chemicals were released into its waterways in 2019, often non-biodegradable and lasting for decades to hundreds of years.

In a stark and alarming example of how quickly a disaster can poison our waterways, consider the 2008 coal ash spill from the Kingston Fossil Plant. After a dike collapsed, 1.1 billion gallons of coal ash spewed into the Emory and Clinch Rivers, both tributaries of the Tennessee. Hundreds of fish died, and many of the cleanup work crew died prematurely over the course of a seven year, $1.1 billion dollar effort to mitigate the damage. The hazardous pollutants in the coal ash, including arsenic, chromium, lead, lithium, mercury, radium, selenium and other heavy metals, have been linked to cancer, heart and thyroid disease, reproductive failure, and neurological harm.

SAVANNAH RIVER: Deemed the fourth most polluted river in the U.S. by the 2009 Environment America report with nearly 7 million pounds of toxic discharge, the Savannah acts as most of the border between South Carolina and Georgia. It supplies drinking water to more than 1.5 million people in the basin, and hosts more than 75 species of rare plants and animals.

Here radioactive contamination plays a major role. The Savannah River Site (SRS) facilities were constructed during the early 1950s to produce basic materials used in the fabrication of nuclear weapons, primarily tritium and plutonium 239. Non-defense-related activities have continued since 1988, providing nuclear materials for the space program as well as medical and industrial research. The SRS facility is responsible for over 7 million gallons of contaminated water released into the Savannah River each year.

As far back as 2004, the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research conducted a study revealing that tritium and trichloroethylene (TCE) found in surface and groundwater greatly exceeded safe water drinking limits. Many people utilize the Savannah for subsistence fishing, and bioaccumulations of cesium, mercury and tritium from the SRS are high. Particularly vulnerable are the Gullah/Geechee African American population, prodigious consumers of the local seafood. Impaired bone growth, damaged cells and even cancer are known health effects in children.

According to Savannah Riverkeeper, communities are also being impacted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and local municipalities allowing hundreds of acres of vital wetlands to be taken over by commercial warehouse developers.

NEW RIVER: The Rio Nuevo, as it’s known where it flows from the agricultural fields south of the city of Mexicali into the U.S. through Calexico, California and into the Salton Sea, is likely still the second most polluted river in the U.S. This was first assessed in a 2009 Environment America report describing nearly 14 million pounds of consistent wastewater discharges.

It wasn’t until 1992 that Mexico and the U.S. began to recognize how serious the problem was. That year, up to 20 million gallons of raw sewage per day entered California in the river water. Tests conducted by the California Regional Water Quality Control Board have found that the fecal coliform bacteria content has ranged to almost 400 times the swimmable limit. A 2016 study by the University of California, Riverside found toxic metals like cadmium, chromium, copper, mercury, nickel and lead far exceeding the threshold for aquatic life in the border area.

The problem persists, and progress has been slow. Finally, in May 2023, the California EPA posted a press release announcing the New River Improvement Project and a $48 million investment to construct a trash screen at the border to bypass the populated southern area of Calexico, and a pump-back system there to discharge treated wastewater.

Kennedy’s December pledge to rid cancer-causing PFAS and ‘forever chemicals’ from our food, water and environment came on the heels of a new Yale University study discovering that the substances not only could cause multiple cancers, but also make the cancer cells spread more rapidly. The researchers focused on colon cancer cells exposed to PFAS that showed signs of metastasis, migrating to different parts of the body.

PFAS are used in a wide spectrum of industrial and consumer producers – everything from nonstick frying pans and stain-resistant carpets to firefighting foam and food wrappers. Manufacturers love the chemicals because they resist heat, oil and water. For the same reasons, PFAS persist in soil, water and our bodies. They have cropped up in detectable levels across 83 percent of waterways across the country, according to the Waterkeeper Alliance: 114 waterways in 29 states and the District of Columbia. Research by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG) suggests that more than 200 million Americans may be drinking PFAS-contaminated water.

According to a 2020 report in The Guardian, the same old villains bear responsibility. “PFAS dates back to the 1930s and 1940s, when DuPont and Manhattan Project scientists each accidentally discovered the chemicals. The Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company, now 3M, soon began manufacturing PFAS as a key ingredient in Scotchgard and other non-stick, waterproof and stain-resistant products. Thousands of different PFAS chemicals emerged over the following decades…. Hush Puppies used it to waterproof leather for shoes. And DuPont, along with its spin-off company Chemours, used the chemicals to make its popular Teflon coatings.”

The article went on to quote David Andrews, a senior scientist with EWG: “PFAS really seem to interact with the full range of biological functions in our body. Even at the levels that the average person has in this country, these chemicals are likely having an impact.”

And The Guardian noted a warning from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control “that exposure to high levels of PFAS might raise the risk of infection with COVID-19 and noted evidence from human and animal studies that PFAS could lower vaccine efficacy.”

That article was published December 22, 2020 (“’Forever Chemicals’ Pollute Water from Alaska to Florida”). Ironically, the first COVID-19 vaccine, Moderna’s, had been granted Emergency Use Authorization five days before.

In January of this year, the Biden Administration issued a new federal rule that companies wanting to produce or resume manufacture of PFAS chemicals that are no longer in use are now required to notify the EPA, which will conduct a safety analysis. This “is part of an effort to screen the ‘forever chemicals’ more rigorously, and prevent them from entering the environment, the EPA said.”

The Delaware Riverkeeper Network’s Tracy Carluccio begged to differ. PFAS shouldn’t even have an opportunity to be reviewed, she told a PBS affiliate (WHYY News, January 10, 2024). She didn’t believe the EPA’s review would take the cumulative impact of PFAS into consideration, and added that a complete ban on PFAS is the only way to protect people.

It’s a safe bet that the EPA under an RFK Jr. administration would pay immediate heed to the Delaware River Network’s spokeswoman.

Dick Russell is an award-winning environmental journalist and the author of several books on climate change and nature, as well as a biographical portrait of The Real RFK Jr. This article utilized background research on the five most toxic rivers by Nancy Owens and Deb Sur of The Kennedy Beacon staff.

American Values 2024 © All Rights Reserved 2024