Waterkeeper Alliance, started by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., in 1999, focuses on enforcing environmental laws and preventing pollution, often with aggressive campaigns that have included lawsuits against small farmers. The alliance has grown into a network of nearly 300 member groups, which in turn connect with other like-minded groups on a local level to accomplish its goals.
The alliance calls itself the biggest and quickest-growing nonprofit whose primary focus is clean water, or “swimmable, drinkable, and fishable water everywhere.”. Critics say the alliance is a thinly veiled cover for trial lawyers seeking big-money payouts from those they accuse of causing environmental damage.
In 2001, Waterkeeper Alliance led a litigation attack on hog farms. The alliance formed a team of 19 attorneys from around the country to file a series of federal and state environmental lawsuits against major pork producers in the early 2000s. Each of the 13 firms involved kicked in $50,000 to fund the effort.
Smithfield Farms proved the biggest target, with Kennedy’s team of attorneys filing a federal suit in Tampa, Florida, accusing the producers of violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. Lawyers contended the company made money from illegal activity because it didn’t have to build sewage treatment facilities. The practice of dumping waste and investing the money saved back into the business constituted money laundering, they argued. U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich ruled that the complaint “failed to state anything” worthwhile and forced the alliance to pay Smithfield’s legal fees as she tossed out the case.
Waterkeeper Alliance later pushed a “Pure Farms, Pure Waters” campaign against what it calls a “failure to regulate pollution from industrialized swine, poultry, and dairy facilities that is devastating rivers, lakes, and estuaries.” But that effort has been fraught with controversy and plenty of headaches for small farmers.
Opponents of the alliance’s efforts say the group overreached in its federal lawsuit against Perdue Farms, a major poultry processor, and the family farm of Kristin and Alan Hudson in Berlin, Maryland. That included Maryland’s then-Governor Martin O’Malley (D), who said the case, which involved the University of Maryland’s Environmental Law Clinic, “uses the economic weapon of unlimited litigation resources — namely, taxpayer supported state resources — to potentially bankrupt and destroy a family farming operation which has no recourse to similarly unlimited litigation assets.”
Waterkeeper Alliance claimed the farms had violated the federal Clean Water Act, although they complied with state laws. The Hudsons won their case in 2013 and the alliance did not appeal. The judge denied the alliance’s motion for attorneys’ fees in the lawsuit, writing “It is most unfortunate that so much time and so many resources were expended on this action that accomplished so little.”
In recent years, the alliance has increased its efforts on a climate change agenda. In December 2016, it submitted a petition along with Pace Environmental Litigation Clinic to the Environmental Protection Agency calling for it to end all of its federal contracts with ExxonMobil.
Kennedy, who serves as president of the alliance, first became involved in the environmental movement after reaching a plea bargain on a charge of heroin possession in 1984. He completed his 800 hours of community service at the Hudson River Foundation, which later became part of Hudson Riverkeeper. Following his volunteer work with the group, he became its chief prosecuting attorney and would form Waterkeeper Alliance 15 years later. He doesn’t pay himself a salary at the alliance.
Marc Yaggi serves as executive director and received total compensation of $214,080 in 2014, according to the organization’s 2015 IRS form 990. He previously served as an attorney and watershed program director for Riverkeeper, Inc., and as a staff attorney for the Environmental Law Institute in Washington, D.C.
Waterkeeper Alliance reported revenue of $9,921,169 and expenses of $11,339,944 in 2014 on its 990.
That form reveals that many of the organization’s grants go to sister groups, such as $190,459 to Yadkin Riverkeeper, Inc., $8,745 to Snake River Riverkeeper and $30,050 to Savannah Waterkeeper. The brunt of the group’s work in 2014 was in Central America and the Caribbean, however, as the alliance reported spending $5,348,443 in those regions that year.
Keeper Springs Water, which donates all of its profits to groups with the mission of cleaning up keeping waterways, was also founded by Kennedy in 1999. Since that time, the company has donated more than $1 million to Waterways Alliance, of which Waterkeeper Alliance is a part.