UPDATE: For more pictures from this story, check out our Flickr page.
Brooke is staff riverkeeper and the executive director of Black Warrior Riverkeeper, a non-profit organization that seeks to protect and restore the Black Warrior and its tributaries. As riverkeeper, he goes on patrols like this one about once a week, checking permitted discharge sites for pollution. Today, he’s checking on the Drummond Company’s Shoal Creek Mine. At this sprawling site, Drummond Co. mines coal from a 1,250-foot deep mine that, in places, actually tunnels under the river and extracts coal, washes it and loads it onto barges.
After I help tie off the boat onto a tree on the bank of the river, Brooke and I, along with two Black Warrior Riverkeeper (BWR) staffers — Charles Scribner, the organization’s director of development, and office assistant Jenn Patterson — step off the boat and began a trek inland. Brooke is carrying a cooler containing ice and two water sample containers, a handheld GPS and a notebook. As we’re fighting through the undergrowth around the stream, we come across an area of the bank covered with dead clams. Brooke says the clams are Corbicula, or Asiatic clams, an invasive species that populates small streams like this one. “Massive die-offs like that are not a good sign,” he says.
We walk inland as far as we can, about 200 yards, before the banks on both sides of the stream become too steep for us to traverse. Although the water is flowing quickly here, it is still gray. Brooke turns on his GPS and hangs it from a tree. He jots down notes about the current time, weather conditions and the appearance of the water, and gets our coordinates off the GPS. Brooke then puts on latex gloves and dips the first sample jar into the water, caps it and puts it in the cooler. He does the same with the second jar and then packs up his equipment.
When we return to Birmingham, Brooke will take the samples to a local lab, which will test them for total suspended solids and heavy metals like manganese and iron. But it is still early in the day, and there are many more discharge sites to examine around this particular mine.
Besides, it is lunchtime. Brooke, Scribner, Patterson and I eat our sack lunches with the boat still tied up at the mouth of the tributary, where the gray water of the mine outfall swirls into the muddy brown of the Black Warrior.
The Black Warrior and its three major tributaries — Locust Fork, Sipsey Fork, and Mulberry Fork — make up the 6,276 square mile watershed that provides Birmingham and much of Alabama with its drinking water. Anything that pollutes that watershed, from Birmingham storm water to industrial wastewater, eventually makes its way in ground and surface water to the Black Warrior. The purity of our drinking water is one concern, but Alabama’s biodiversity is another significant consideration. Alabama is number one in the U.S. in freshwater biodiversity, meaning that there are more species of wildlife living in and along Alabama’s rivers than in any other state. Pollution can endanger that wildlife. Metals can accumulate in the tissues of fish and other animals and plants, harming that life and anything that consumes it.
The Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) issues permits that allow companies to dump certain amounts of industrial waste into the river at sites like the Shoal Creek Mine discharges. The companies are required to sample water at their discharge sites and file monthly reports called discharge monitoring reports, or DMRs, with ADEM.
Black Warrior Riverkeeper can do little if the polluting companies are polluting within their permits, but Brooke says ADEM makes it difficult to find out if companies are even filing DMRs.
“We feel that almost all facilities are doing the proper monitoring and sending in the DMRs, but that isn’t always reflected by the ADEM files,” he says. “Often times they don’t have anything in there, or sometimes it’s six months to a couple of years behind in the file. It’s been a major issue for us.”
When asked for comment by e-mail, ADEM’s public relations department did not respond.
After lunch, Brooke weaves the boat behind barges and through the coal offloading facilities at the mine until we come across a somewhat hidden discharge site. The water at the mouth of this site – by my count, the fourth one we visited that day – is much grayer than the first polluted site.
“Y’all are getting to experience the worst thing I’ve ever seen from this mine,” Brooke says as I again tie the boat up at the bank. Brooke disembarks first and hikes briskly towards the source of the stream with his cooler, notebook, GPS and new sample jars (three this time — a smell of sewage prompts Brooke to sample for fecal coliform at this site, as well heavy metals and total suspended solids). “I think I smell sewage,” Brooke says. At some point, Patterson and I stop, unable to beat a path through the dense brush. Scribner continues on after Brooke. After about 15 minutes, Scribner and Brooke return after having reached the source of the outfall, and we head back to boat.
Back in the boat, we rush back towards the landing and then back to Birmingham, as the fecal coliform sample must get back to the lab quickly. In the truck on the way back, Brooke calls ADEM and the Alabama Surface Mining Commission to report the possible pollution, but he doesn’t think anything will come of those calls. “Typically, when I make a complaint nowadays I’ll get a call back – if I get a call back – in a week or so, and they’ll tell me they didn’t see anything,” Brooke says.
In Birmingham, Brooke dropped Scribner, Patterson and me at our cars and took the samples to the lab. Two weeks later, the results came in. Surprisingly, the heavy metals and total suspended solids tests were within permit limits.
“I don’t know how that’s possible, given what we saw, but they are,” Brooke said in a voicemail. However, the fecal coliform sample, which is an indicator of sewage in the water, came back positive.
“We found over 200 colonies per 100 milliliters,” Brooke said. “That is not permitted for that outfall, and is an illegal pollutant coming from there.”
That’s just another day in the life of the Black Warrior Riverkeeper.
For more information on the Black Warrior rivershed and Black Warrior Riverkeeper visit www.blackwarriorriverkeeper.org. For more pictures from this story, check out our Flickr page.