Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.
Nelson Brooke works for the nonprofit environmental group Black Warrior Riverkeeper, based in Birmingham, Alabama. There, he spends his days patrolling the river, looking out for industrial malpractice and getting to know the rivers and streams he grew up on.
Enjoy our conversation about Alabama geography, state complacency, the flattened musk turtle, and the black warrior waterdog, below.
Olivia Weeks, The Daily Yonder: Can you start by telling me about the Black Warrior Riverkeeper organization, and then about your role as the River Keeper himself?
Nelson Brooke: Black Warrior Riverkeeper is a nonprofit organization that was started in 2001 in Birmingham, Alabama to protect and restore the Black Warrior River and its tributaries, all of which are contained within the state of Alabama’s borders. It was created by several locals who realized that, while we have the Clean Water Act and other environmental statutes, our State Department of Environmental Management and the Environmental Protection Agency at the federal level were not enforcing environmental laws or holding polluters accountable. So, instead, it’s really up to locals to take matters into their own hands. Black Warrior Riverkeeper is a member organization of Waterkeeper Alliance, which is an international alliance of organizations like ours that now numbers over 300 around the world.
The River Keeper role is one of the numerous requirements of a Waterkeeper organization. There must be a full time patrolman, spokesman, and advocate for a waterway who’s paid to be out on the water, meeting with people, documenting pollution issues, and holding polluters accountable. And so that’s the role that I’m in. I’ve been the River Keeper since 2004, so for about 19 years now. The idea is to keep a constant presence, a person who is very knowledgeable about the watershed, who knows a lot of the stakeholders in the watershed, and who can represent the watershed to the public and to the media. So that, essentially, the river, which does not have a voice, can have a voice.
DY: Can you tell me a little bit about the landscape that comprises the watershed you work on? What is the geography and population like?
NB: So the Black Warrior watershed starts out up in north central Alabama, along the southern end of the Tennessee Valley divide. The Tennessee River Basin is just north of the headwaters of the Black Warrior, which consists of three forks: the Sipsey Fork, the Mulberry Fork and the Locust Fork. They converge west of Birmingham to form the main Black Warrior River. As the river system gets down toward Birmingham, it’s getting down into the southern reaches of the Appalachians. Between Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, the geography kind of shifts from the tail end of the Appalachians into the Fall Line Hills, which is the transition between the mountain and the East Gulf Coastal Plain. And so as that happens, there’s a big change from large limestone and sandstone cliffs and boulders to more rolling hills and a more earthy environment with less rock. And then there’s a stark change to very sandy, silty and loose soil. And so the river changes dramatically from these big rock bluffs down to these big sandy banks and it also opens wide up into its floodplain. There are thousands of acres of river bottom floodplain and wetlands that are full of bald cypress and water tupelo trees. And that whole ecosystem performs the amazing role of filtering water and passing it back down into the groundwater systems that ultimately feed the water back up to the surface to form all the streams in the basin. And then lastly, as the river gets down to its lower reaches it flows through a very, very interesting and ancient area where the Cretaceous chalk and limestone and clay bluffs line the river. And so you’ve got these big gray and white bluffs that are eroding into the river that are chock full of fossils.
As to the population, we’ve got very, very rural and and generally poor, agricultural and mining communities up in the headwaters. There’s a lot of chicken farming, a lot of pasture grazing of cattle and a lot of a lot of coal mining, especially heavy coal mining in the past. And so that has generated some very economically depressed communities that were once thriving, where people are struggling. You get down into the Birmingham area, called the Magic City because of its precipitous rise to industrial glory based on the proximity of iron ore, limestone, and coal resources. Those allowed for Birmingham to be a real center for production of coke, steel, iron and pipe and all sorts of products primarily drawn on to feed the war machine.
Because the Black Warrior is connected down to Mobile Bay, it has the ability to to carry large amounts of materials because it’s been dammed and locked. So there are lots of barges going up and down the river. In addition to the pollution side of this, which is terrible for the river and its tributaries, there’s a very ugly side to the industrialization of the Black Warrior which of course begins with slavery, but then gets transformed into, essentially, slave labor by another name, prison labor in the mines. And then as things transformed a little bit, there’s a lesser known piece of racial inequality and racism that occurred here, which was redlining of non-white communities into the industrial areas. So where we still have operational coal plants, steel mills, pipe mills, and other major industrial polluting facilities, they are predominantly located in Black communities in the Birmingham area. So there’s a very disproportionate impact on Black communities as a result of that.
Outside of Birmingham the river starts flowing south toward Tuscaloosa, another heavily segregated and industrial town. And then you’re into the East Gulf Coastal Plain where it’s very, very sandy and open and there’s a lot of agriculture. And that eventually goes down to an area known as the Black Belt, originally called such because of its very fertile, dark, rich soils. And it’s a region where a lot of Black farming families landed and have tried to make a living for themselves. It’s also a region where a lot of white landowners have, from the plantation era on, maintained large tracts of land.
DY: What are the major polluters that threaten the river?
NB: In the watershed, you’ve got agricultural, mining, industrial and sewage and municipal waste, or, urban runoff and all that that brings with it. We’ve also got hydraulic fracturing, or natural gas wells that are drawing methane out of the coal seams.
DY: How does that last one pose a threat to the river?
NB: Getting the natural gas or methane out of the coal seams requires hydraulic fracturing which involves pumping liquid and high pressure down into the target seam holding the gas. So they drill a well or wells down into the coal seam and then use a mixture of water and lots of different chemicals. That on its own can be, if you look into it, very alarming, once you understand what all they’re pumping into the ground. That breaks the coal apart so the gas can escape. They also pump sands that are loaded with phenolic resins, which are very nasty chemicals and that holds the cracks up and allow the gas to escape. Then, when they get done, the byproduct is all of this contaminated, chemical-laden water. They pump that out of the well and, in Alabama, they’re allowed to just dump it right back into the rivers and streams in the area.
DY: How much of the job is retroactive and how much of it is proactive? How much is the River Keeper trying to redress past harm to the environment and how much of it is about really being on the lookout for new sources of environmental damage?
NB: It’s a combination, but there have been plenty of projects that have come up that we dive in on and weigh in on and try to have an effect on and try to stop. So that’s definitely a big piece of what we do. It’s not just determining what harm has been caused or is being caused and then trying to hold polluters accountable for past harm. We’ve been able to stop some bad development projects. And we weigh in on regulatory changes whether it’s to existing regulations or new regulations that are being proposed. So we try to have an impact on all of the different threats to the river, whether it’s through administrative processes or doing grassroots organizing and getting communities to feel empowered to stand up for their rights, or challenging state and federal regulatory authorities for decisions they’re about to make or that they have made in the past, getting the word out in the public. Whether that’s through community meetings, civic group presentations, social media from us, or just general media interviews and exposure. There’s too much going on. So we can’t address everything, but we do the best we can with a pretty small team.
DY: What’s the project that’s the most exciting to you right now that you guys are working on?
NB: I can’t tell you because it involves a lawsuit that we have not announced yet. But one of our biggest accomplishments was stopping a massive Alabama coal mining company from mining almost 2,000 acres along the Mulberry fork of the Black Warrior for coal. They were planning on mining an entire bend of the river directly across from one of the largest drinking water intakes in the state. The Birmingham Water Works Board has a drinking water intake there on the river for 200,000 people every day and the state was lined up, handing out permits and ready to let it happen. We decided that it was a battle that we needed to take on, so we partnered with local communities. We got a lot of different neighborhood districts in Birmingham, as well as the Birmingham City Council, to pass resolutions opposing the mine. It was a fun organizing project. A lot of students and faculty universities across the state to weigh in and file petitions and have protests and a lot of public awareness raising. Ultimately it was about an eight and a half year battle, and we won. We kept them from opening the mine even though they got permits.
DY: Can you describe what a day on your patrol boat is like?
NB: It might be a day on the patrol boat, but it might be a day in a canoe or a helicopter or in my car. Patrol means a lot of different things depending on which area of the watershed that I’m focused on. But we have a boat that enables me to take up to 11 people out with me. So some days, it’s just me and a colleague or a volunteer or an intern. And then other days it’s me with eight or nine people, whether that’s scientists or students, or just generally interested in members of the public.
I may be going out to specifically check on and perhaps sample at certain industrial facilities, or I may just be going out to generally patrol the river and look for anything that looks amiss. And a good day on the river is when I don’t find any problems, of course.
DY: What’s an example of running into something sketchy on the water?
NB: Well, there could be a tributary feeding into the river that’s visibly discharging nasty water whether it’s gray or orange or cloudy or black or covered with a rainbow oil sheen. Or it could be a group of fish that are distressed, or dead fish all over the surface of the water. Those are the kinds of situations that we keep an eye out for, where it’s obvious that something is wrong that needs to be addressed.
We also do water sampling for problems that aren’t so obvious. If I see water coming out of a pipe from a facility that looks really nasty or smells really nasty, then I’m able to take samples and bring it back to a certified laboratory in Birmingham and have it analyzed to see if that facility is discharging anything that’s out of line with their Clean Water Act permit. That’s a big piece of the accountability that I do as a River Keeper. We’ve got a staff scientist on our team who helps me determine what’s in the permits, what the parameters are for a given facility’s discharges. They can only discharge a certain set of pollutants and in many cases those pollutants will be limited so they have a maximum amount that they’re allowed to discharge. And so when we get the sample analyzed, we can tell whether or not they’re violating the permit.
DY: In the case of the fish kill or the oily surface, what have you traced those issues back to?
NB: A lot of times my patrols are based on a complaint that we get from a fisherman or boat or on the river that’s out at sunrise and see something amiss. We went out on one of those calls to Alabama Power’s steam plant and they had a big fish kill out there that this fisherman called in. There was oil sheen all over the surface of the river at the facility and big dead fish everywhere. And it was very clearly coming from the power plant. So we were there talking to the State Department of Conservation and Natural Resources about what we had seen, and I submitted all the evidence that I collected to them and the Alabama Department of Environmental Management. And ultimately, the Department of Conservation just counts the fish – they basically assess the extent and the severity of the impact on the fish, and then the Department of Environmental Management is supposed to investigate the cause or the source. But they didn’t hold the power company accountable. They said that they couldn’t determine where it came from. The investigator showed up late and without sample bottles. And when he did go back and get sample bottles and come back out and sample it, it was way after the fact. And he also didn’t sample and analyze for a number of the pollutants who would have needed to be looked at to determine what the pollution was well on where it came from. They ultimately did not hold the power company accountable for that. The power company tried to blame it on a contractor that was upstream working on a bridge that had a crane fall over and spill a bit of oil on the ground. But it was certainly not possible that that accident caused this problem downstream.
There was just a major lack of investigation from the state. So our role is to fill in the gaps, provide the facts and hopefully effectuate the proper outcome. The issue is that we are not a regulatory agency, so we don’t have the ability to just show up and go on the power company’s property and do an investigation like the state does. They also have the ability to demand that the power company provide them with documentation and information around an incident, which we don’t. But they don’t typically do that kind of investigation. So just to highlight what we’re up against here, if we had an aggressive state agency that we worked with hand in hand which is the case in some other states, then we could have really held the power company accountable. But that didn’t happen. And then again in 2019 they had a spill of fire retardant chemicals. They claimed that it was an accidental release, but they were in the process of decommissioning the power plant. And you could certainly imagine that they just bled the lines out into the creek and weren’t really worried about the impacts that it might have. It caused a huge fish kill and the same fishermen reported it. We ultimately found out from a couple of whistleblowers that the power company had been out there picking up fish and hauling them off in a dumpster for days prior to the state investigation or our investigation. And we submitted all of that information to the regulatory agencies as well as the media. There was a fair amount of exposure on that. And ultimately, the state regulatory agency did not do anything about it.
DY: I want to close with one question that’s a bit of a change of pace – can you tell me about your personal relationship with the river and how it’s changed over the many years that you’ve been doing this work?
NB: I grew up in Birmingham and as a kid I played on the river and its watershed, out in the woods and on the creeks, starting probably when I was about six years old, so I’ve had a lifelong connection to it. But then I kind of came by the job randomly. I always knew that I wanted to work outdoors but I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. And then a friend of mine started the Black Warrior Riverkeeper organization as his senior thesis in college. He knew that I had a strong connection to the river and called me up one day and asked me to come back to Alabama from Colorado where I went to college and become the River Keeper. I had no idea I was going to be doing it for this long. I was actually hired for five months to fill in for him while he went and finished his college degree. And it has just become a career. The impact on me has been great. It’s a dream job. I have met so many amazing people, learned so much incredible stuff about Alabama that I didn’t know growing up here. It has really shown me all that this watershed has to offer and how special it is.
For instance, we’ve got the first Wilderness Area created east of the Mississippi River, the Sipsey Wilderness. And the only “Wild and Scenic River” in Alabama is the Sipsey Fork of the Black Warrior. That is, by the nature of its protection, the stronghold for endangered species in the Black Warrior basin. We’ve got a number of endemic species to the river that occur here and nowhere else in the world including the flattened musk turtle, the black warrior waterdog, a large aquatic salamander and a number of fish and muscle and snail species. I even helped discover a new species of crayfish that had never been described before.
So it’s cool to think that even though this river system has been altered by dams and polluted significantly since the 1800s, just the past 200 years have been really brutal for the Black Warrior, it’s still home to 127 species of fish and 35 species of mussels. So while there’s been a lot lost, there’s still a lot to fight for and a lot to save.
This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.