August 5, 2021
This week, guest host Adilia Watson talks with Nelson Brooke, a Riverkeeper from rural Alabama. In that role, Nelson investigates pollution on the Black Water River and takes pictures of illegal polluting activity. His work was recognized by the Alabama River Alliance when they named him the 2010 Alabama River Hero. Don’t miss this episode of Everywhere Radio, as we learn about the impressive biodiversity of rural Alabama and the importance of protecting our natural resources.
Adilia: All right, Nelson, how are you doing today?
Nelson: I’m doing pretty good.
Adilia: Nice, nice.
Adilia: And where are you reporting from today?
Nelson: Birmingham, Alabama.
Adilia: So, I just want to talk to you about your work on the Black Warrior River, and how you get involved in the community, and get them caring about pollution on the Black Warrior River. Can you talk a little about your position?
Nelson: Yeah, absolutely.
Nelson: So, I’m the Riverkeeper at Black Warrior Riverkeeper, and I’ve been in this position for about 17 years now. And my job is to be the patrolman and spokesman for the Black Warrior River watershed, which is entirely contained within Alabama. And so I get out by all sorts of mediums, by foot, by car, by motorboat, by canoe, by airplane, and look for pollution problems. We respond to complaints that the people up and down the river send to us. And it’s my job to investigate and document, gather information, help communities solve their problems. And where necessary, our four-person nonprofit is set up to file federal lawsuits using the citizen supervisions of the Clean Water Act.
Adilia: Do most of the complaints or the evidence that goes into the federal lawsuit, are those mostly from citizens concerned with the local pollution?
Nelson: Yeah, I mean, most of the complaints that we get are from people that live up and down the river who regularly use it. We really depend on reports from people up and down the river because, as the Riverkeeper, I’m one person, I can only keep my eyes on so much turf at one period of time. And so we’ve got a lot of people up and down the river system that are very committed to keeping their local waterways clean. And so people take pictures, and videos, and send us notes. And in a lot of cases, do most of the advocacy necessary to get the problems addressed.
Adilia: Are most of these people rural, or is it a mix of people from Birmingham, Demopolis?
Nelson: It is a mixture of rural and urban, the Black Warrior watershed spans some of the largest cities in the state, but it also is predominantly rural areas that ultimately feed into the river.
Adilia: And so tap into a little bit of how people know to come to the Riverkeepers. Do you do a lot of outreach in the communities just to keep you on people’s minds, or is it more of like, they look up someone to talk to, and you guys just pop up. How do you get your name out there?
Nelson: Yeah, that’s a good question. So, I mean, even though we’ve been around for a little bit later on this year, 20 years now, as an advocacy nonprofit, a lot of people have never heard of us that I run into out on the river. Or, have heard of us or have seen me patrolling in the boat, but don’t know who we are, what we do. And so it’s a constant that we need to be out there putting the word out and making sure that people know that we’re a major resource for them for information about the river, if they need help on filing and following up on complaints. And just generally, to ask questions about what’s going on and what can be done, and whether or not we know about what’s happening in their area of the watershed.
Nelson: But yeah, it’s interesting, there’s probably more awareness in the urban areas such as Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, where there’s just a lot more activity from high school and college students and a lot more awareness about environmental issues. But we’re certainly continuing to get the word out in rural areas. And I would say most people who file complaints with us, say that they heard about us from a friend, or found us online through social media, or saw us on TV.
Adilia: Cool thing that you mentioned your social media, because I was looking at your Instagram page, and you guys are out there on the water just taking pictures of companies dumping out waste. Can you talk a little bit more about that? That seems a little risky and kind of scary.
Nelson: Well, I mean, that’s my job in a nutshell is, it’s not glamorous. In a lot of cases, it’s being out there during bad weather and nasty conditions, documenting all of the awful things that individuals and companies choose to do to our waterways, whether they have a permit or not. It’s pretty unbelievable how much pollution is going on out there and how little oversight there is from the authorized regulatory agencies. So that’s why we exist to get out there and to do the dirty work to hold polluters accountable, and encourage our regulators to file penalties, and all sorts of actions to hold polluters accountable. Because right now in Alabama, I mean, it’s really kind of a polluter’s playing field. This is the perfect place for them to come. They have Black’s regulatory environment, they get incentives from state legislature and local governments, and are really just met with open arms. We seem to be an open door policy for polluters to come and dump in Alabama.
Adilia: Can you paint a picture for our viewers about what it looks like when you get that initial complaint? And maybe even provide an example, if you can, legally, about a company that you’ve pursued legal claims against? Is that a safe question to ask?
Nelson: Sure, absolutely. We, oftentimes, will get complaints via phone, or email, or Facebook, or our website, and regardless of how we receive the complaints, some people choose to be anonymous and we fully respect that because, unfortunately, there’s retaliation in some cases for people speaking out. But it’s my job to respond to complainants that are sending in pollution reports and gather additional information, so I can figure out exactly where they are, where the problem they identified is, see if I can help them figure out where it’s coming from, if they don’t already know that. And I’m just gleaning from them whatever information they’ve already put together and then determine whether or not there’s something additional I can do, if I need to go out and do a patrol and look at things myself, and just kind of navigate what the next steps are.
Nelson: As for the circumstance where we have taken legal action, I’ll just highlight a relatively recent legal action that’s still ongoing, and that is around a massive old underground coal mine. We have a lot of coal mining in Alabama, particularly in the Black Warrior watershed. And it’s one of the nastiest things that I’ve found in my early years as Riverkeeper, I was patrolling up the river in our patrol boat, and I noticed orange water cascading down the riverbank. And I turned the boat around and pulled over to check it out and I could tell it was a man-made dam with some limestone rocks armoring it. And there was this orange water spilling down in it.
Nelson: It turns out that it’s this old underground mine that has just been left fallow for many years and all the rainwater washes off the side, along with a lot of erosion of all the old mine waste, which is very acidic and loaded with heavy metals that are in coal. And the water coming out of this side is on average between two and three pH, so it’s very acidic. And as a result, it’s leaching out a bunch of pollutants, such as heavy metals, into the river.
Nelson: And so, ultimately, we spent many years trying to determine if any regulatory action had been taken. And we encouraged state regulators to look into the site. And several years ago, we just finally decided that we needed to take action ourselves in federal court, because it was clear that the state wasn’t going to do anything. And that’s kind of the way that it works. If our state regulatory agency, the Department of Environmental Management, is not taking regulatory action and the federal oversight agency, the Environmental Protection Agency, is not taking any regulatory action, then we have an avenue through the citizen suit provisions of the Clean Water Act of 1972 that lets individuals or organizations take the matter into their own hands and file a Clean Water Act lawsuit to hold polluters accountable.
Nelson: And so we’ve done just that along with the Southern Environmental Law Center in public justice to public interest law firms that help out organizations like ours. We’ve gotten a federal judge to hold Drummond company, the owner of the mine site, liable under the Clean Water Act for illegal discharges of pollution into the Locust Fork of the Black Warrior River. And the next phase of the case is an upcoming trial where the remedy for the mess will be determined.
Adilia: Do you have any examples of victories that are case closed, the case has been won, anything like that happening with Black Warrior Riverkeeper?
Nelson: Yeah, absolutely. There is a mix, for sure, of losses and kind of medium ground, as well as some wins. So the wins that I can highlight for you go back to the early mid-2000s. We tried to get the state to hold the Birmingham Airport authority accountable for a lot of muddy water runoff into Village Creek, which is a waterway here that ultimately flows through rural areas out into the Locust Fork, and we couldn’t get them to do anything. So we filed a notice of intent to sue and we were able to settle with the City…
… that they absolutely were not. And ultimately, the airport authority ended up spending over a million dollars with the local engineering firm to get the whole site into compliance, erosion-wise, and stop sending all that muddy orange water into the creek.
Nelson: We have been successful in taking on a number of wastewater treatment plants that treat our human sewage as well as some company and industrial waste throughout the watershed. And so that’s been a big focus of ours is taking on non-compliant waste water treatment plants, and encouraging them to get their act together and properly handle and manage and treat wastewater. So they’re not discharging raw sewage into our waterways. That’s certainly something that just about everybody can agree with should not be happening, it’s raw sewage flowing into our streams and lakes.
Nelson: And a big multi-year battle that we waged, that ultimately wasn’t necessarily won through legal avenues as we stood up against a nearly 2000-acre proposal for a strip coal mine, right on top of a major Birmingham drinking water supply, the Mulberry Fork of the Black Warrior. The state allowed permits to go forward for a Drummond coal mine right next to the intake for 200,000 people’s drinking water. It was directly across the river. It was going to have nearly 30 discharge points for polluted water into the river right there where this drinking water is pulled out.
Nelson: And so we partnered with locals, we partnered with students of all ages, with faculty across the state, had a really good coalition of students, and businesses, and individuals that were all galvanized around not letting this happen. We saw it as a terrible precedence can be set for trying to protect drinking water now and into the future for the state of Alabama. Ultimately, the regulatory agencies gave out all the permits. But the way that we were we’re able to kind of hold it off is, the major land and mineral rights’ holder out there is the University of Alabama, and the University of Alabama system has a lot of land grant lands across the state that they are supposed to hold in stewardship for the betterment of the university system.
And so there was a lot of pushback for them, essentially trying to make cash by doing resource extraction, particularly where it harms local communities in the environment and drinking water. And it was just a little bit too hot in the kitchen for the University of Alabama to hand over the leases to the coal company to allow the mine to go forward. And so their lack of action, they never took an actual stance on the mine proposal, forced the company to eventually back down after about an eight year battle. And they announced that they were no longer going to seek mining at the site.
Adilia: Is there a moment where you get discouraged by pursuing this? Or, is it just the will of trying to improve the community that keep you going? Talk about your motivations behind the work that you’re doing.
Nelson: Sure. So, I mean, it can be incredibly frustrating to see how slow it takes things to turn around. I thought, coming in with fresh eyes and a lot of passion for this new job, that we were going to be quickly making all these wins. There’s all these polluters that are doing this awful stuff, I can go take pictures of some really terrible things happening that’s hard to refute. Then backed up by sampling that I do and other expert testimony that we gather, I mean, we can make some really compelling cases. But what we didn’t foresee is that there’s a status quo here that is being maintained.
And so there are, what I’ve seen over the years, judges that just aren’t really willing to fully listen to what we have to say and what we’re putting in front of them. And so we’ve lost some really strong cases just because of seemingly differences of opinion about what companies are allowed to do under the Clean Water Act and other environmental statutes. A lot of judges actually aren’t really that familiar with these environmental laws because they don’t see that many cases under them. And so they’re just kind of left to hearing arguments from the defense and the plaintiff side.
But I stand strong in my conviction that we’re making a difference. And so I can just wake up everyday knowing that, that we’re making a major difference and we’re opening a lot of eyes. And while the progress that we’re making isn’t near as fast as I would like for it to be, it’s certainly a necessary call. And so we’re just going to keep pressing forward in hopes that the status quo in Alabama will not remain the same for much longer. And we can get leaders in place who recognize that protecting our natural resources is critical to public health, to healthy communities, and to vibrancy, and productivity, that’s essential for a thriving economy. And without protecting our natural resources here, we’re just kind of setting our state up for failure.
Adilia: Yeah. And interestingly, I read that Alabama has been the number one most biodiverse aquatic systems in America, am I right?
Nelson: Darn straight, we are the number one state for aquatic biodiversity. And so we have a lot to lose. We’ve already lost a lot, actually. There’s a lot of rare and endangered species that occur in rivers across Alabama. And we have more species of turtles, and snails, and fish, and mollusks than anywhere else. So, yeah, it’s an amazing place. A lot of people don’t realize… A lot of people in Alabama don’t realize, what all we have in our backyard because, in a lot of cases, the streams and rivers that are flowing through our communities are in pretty remote forested locations that are mostly on private property. So it’s, in a lot of cases, out of sight, out of mind.
Adilia: All of that seems like a big job to protect. So do you do any coalition work or working with other local organizations? I know Black Belt Citizens is a big environmental group and I’m pretty sure a lot of the native indigenous tribes do a lot of work as well. Are you working with them? Is there any back and forth on legal cases?
Nelson: Yeah, so we do partner on a regular basis with the Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice. Uniontown Alabama, where they’re located, is the Southern most city in the entire Black Warrior watershed. It’s down at the very bottom end of the footprint. And we recognized back in the ‘2000s, looking at all the different myriad pollution issues going on across the watershed that what was going on in Uniontown was special in the sense that it’s a teeny town, predominantly black, very poor, and it has all these massive outsized pollution issues that just can’t be overseen.
Nelson: So we dug in and basically came to realize that this town was unique in that it had a failing wastewater treatment lagoon system. And some of the major drivers for its failures were local industry that were taking advantage of their ability to tie into that system, and they were overloading it with their waste. And so we have been involved in this over a decade battle down there, along with locals, trying to get the local voice elevated to the discussion with state regulators and other decision makers so that whatever ultimately ends up coming to be in Uniontown with its wastewater and industrial wastewater systems, is this something that makes sense for and is sustainable for the community going forward to benefits the residents, and it doesn’t just continue to benefit these wealthy corporations who are clearly taking advantage of the situation down there.
Adilia: That’s amazing. And yeah, Uniontown is rural, and I can see there’s room to, historically, black communities have been taken advantage of when it comes to pollution and environmental degradation. So it’s amazing that you all take the time to really work with them.
So can you talk to me… I know you’re based in and grew up in Birmingham. Can you talk more about how your identity plays into the work that you do. I see you as an outdoorsman kind of… You like being outdoors, how does that really help and bolster your work in the community?
Nelson: Well, so I think me being very connected from an early age to present with a love for the outdoors and therefore protecting it, it grounds me in the work that I do, but it also gives me credibility with people up and down the river who care about the natural systems we’re working to protect. Because if I was just a cubicle jockey from the city that worked on a computer all day and didn’t really know the river that well, then it’d be pretty hard for me to really make ends meet with people that I’m meeting out there. I grew up playing in the woods along the creek in my parents’ backyard. I was in scouting and got my Eagle Scout. And of course, the mantra there is, “Do right by your community and your neighbor, and do good deeds every day.” And so I just kind of have spent my life looking for ways to make things better. And I’m lucky to be back in my home state and trying to make it better.
And learning while on the job, it’s been a huge eye opener. I didn’t realize that a lot of this pollution was going on when I grew up here. And so it’s really bolstered my conviction to continue this work because I’ve come to realize that our education in Alabama was essentially painted with a white brush and we didn’t learn accurate information about the state’s Native American early history, and we didn’t learn accurately about our rivers, and we weren’t told the story of what was being done to our rivers, particularly by the major corporations that control the state.
And so in learning all of that, I recognized if we, as the people of Alabama, don’t find a way to band together, and organize, and fight truth to power, then they’re just going to continue to get away with taking advantage of this state and keeping it 20 years behind the rest of the country. And so that’s a big goal of ours, is to continue to open eyes and change the system. And yeah, I’m super committed to it. I consider myself really lucky to have this kind of job, and I don’t take that for granted on any day.
Adilia: If you had any time to say something to rural people and even urban people about how to get involved with decreasing pollution in the Black Warrior River, what would you say to them?
Nelson: Throw out the notion that you can’t make a difference and throw out the notion that it’s too big of a battle to take on, that the powerful, entrenched polluting big money, corporate interests that are the big part of the problem here, have utter control and there’s no way to wrestle it from them, and they’re going to win every time. Because we’ve been able to show that it’s not the case. And we’ve been able to mostly show that that’s not the case through our battles where we gain massive partnerships through coalition building with local communities and other organizations. We can do this, and we’re only going to be able to do it if more people jump into the fray.
And so I really want people to just step into that and recognize that it might seem daunting, but it’s really not if we all joined together. We showed that in the big Shepherd Bend mine battle. We were told that there was no way for us to ever win, we might as well walk away and spend our time doing something else, but we didn’t listen to that. We were told, when we were battling the ridiculous boondoggle, the Northern Beltline, a massive [inaudible 00:26:49] infrastructure highway project, that there was no way to ever win, and that it was going to get built, and we might as well just get out of the way. And here we are nearly two decades later, and they’ve only partially built about a mile and they have over 50 to go.
So, I mean, we can do this, but we need you. And so we’re constantly asking people to tap into us with questions and concerns, to report issues in their area to us, and work with us to make the river better, because we’re just a small staff of four. And so it’s going to take a lot of people stepping up to join in with us, to accomplish our goal of making the river healthier and cleaner for everybody to enjoy.
Adilia: Thank you so much for sharing all of that. I hope that this will move communities in Alabama forward and really get them to speak up about what they’ve put in their bodies and the environment that they’re in. Thank you so much for sharing.
Nelson: You bet. Thanks for giving us the time to talk about it.