Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Fall 2015 Aerial Recon

Thomas Kahlert, SouthWings Pilot and Hurricane Creekkeeper
Dec. 18, 2015...
It was a bit chilly on the ground but down right cold at 2,000 feet with the window open. That's what it takes get the dirt on polluters and show the real view of why it is so important to protect places like Hurricane Creek.

Tuscaloosa County straddles the Fall Line of Appalachia which makes Hurricane Creek is the southernmost free flowing stream in the Appalachian Mountain Chain. That gives us an ecosystem so diverse you have to go all the way around the world to find a diversity as rich as we have here in the temperate zone according to Dr. E.O. Wilson. So, that's why I am so passionate about protecting this crown jewel of Tuscaloosa County.   


Just as we were preparing to take off this guy showed up and left before us. It was great seeing these two old birds on the tarmac together. A real blast from the past. 

On takeoff we made a turn to the East over the old railroad bridge and the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater. (The Amp) The bridge has been a source of recent controversy due to it's age and cargo crossing the river so close to the Amp and other public use areas.


The rail yard located under 15th street and in a congested area had several trains in staging. The one in the center is made up of all DOT-111 rail cars said to be the most dangerous on the tracks today when it comes to puncture rating. Even though the standards for tank cars has been slightly increased they still are only 12 MPH side impact and 20 MPH head on. No one has ever tested them by dropping them 30 feet from a worn out bridge but I would bet they would not hold up.

 Hurricane Creek and Black Warrior River

Leaving the rail yard we flew next to the mouth of Hurricane Creek. It is located just below the Holt Lock and dam. We now have access to a piece of land known as Spradling Bottoms. It serves as a final take-out for members who paddle but also a place for me to put in for patrol of the lower end of the creek. Many thanks to Dr's Angelia and Doug Woodward for this privilege.
The creek surrounds Spradling Bottoms

From this location I can be at the mouth of the creek for inspection and patrol in about 15 minutes as opposed to an hour prior to this.

I love it in Winter because the air is so clear. Cold but clear!
Holt Lock and Dam
Leaving the river it was easy to see the next target of investigation... 
Mount Trashaloosa!
Mount Trashaloosa, AKA, Buzzards Roost, ADLF Eagle Bluff

Advanced Disposal Landfill (ADLF) is the highest man made landmark in the county. It towers above all of the surrounding terrain and is made of trash. 

Landfill entrance on right, Chambers Cemetery on left
As usual you can see a mud trail leaving the landfill and leading up 12th street causing neighbors to breathe dust and diesel fumes from the hundreds of industrial waste hauling trucks. I later went to the site for ground truthing. It was just as bad on the ground as from the air. 

Advanced Disposal truck kicks up dust
Chambers Cemetery on right

Trucks numbering in the hundreds travel the length of 12th street to enter the landfill. Most are huge industrial sized trucks not just little pickup trucks.

They haul everything from asbestos, roofing material, adhesives, solvents, old tires and lots of things we don't need to be breathing. Nothing stops the roaring of trucks and machinery, even funerals. Many times the funeral procession has been completely gridlocked by these behemoth trash haulers. You would never see this in affluent white neighborhoods. Landfills and environmental justice is a topic for a whole new post.

On the other side of the landfill It was still obvious where the 2011 tornado path is. Wide swaths of empty land where trees are scarce and almost no rebuilding. The still gray looking path runs right through the photo on the left.

Another target for this flight was to check on reclamation progress at Black Warrior Minerals coal strip mine. (BWM) has recently requested a 100% bond release for this site claiming they have met all requirements for phase 3 bond release. According to the Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 (SMCRA)  "On eastern coal lands, the final portion of the bond cannot be released until five years after successful revegetation and natural regeneration.  During the five year period, the operator may not seed, fertilize, irrigate, or perform other work designed to artificially enhance the vegetation.[4] 


This site hardly meets those requirements. I saw bare ground where total vegetation was supposed to be established and some pretty serious discharge issues at a couple of the ponds. 

This one shows a bright red streak covering the discharge overflow. That indicates heavy metal discharge potential. I've seen it for years associated with other parts of this mine. The banks of the pond look to be discolored and armored with the same red sludge seen in the spillway.

According to the rules the area must have successful revegetation and natural regeneration for five years. This mine was in active status just a year ago. It is my most honest opinion that the request is to make them unaccountable to the recent lawsuit by Black Warrior Riverkeeper and your Hurricane Creekkeeper / Friends of Hurricane Creek.

I've seen this before on the same mine earlier on in the permit. If they get a full release then the state can no longer hold them responsible for ongoing pollution.These photos do not show revegetation and natural regeneration.

We turned north a bit and out of the watershed to another mine in Adger Alabama. The coal waste pile at Shannon mine can be seen for miles around and a visible landmark from 5 miles away on Hwy 216.

A dragline named Mr. Tom sits there idled by low coal prices and terrible business decisions by it's owners. 

It used to sit idle in Hurricane Creek watershed until a few years ago when Drummond thought it would be a good investment to refurbish it and go back to mountain top removal type mining. It made one trip to the Shannon mine and hasn't dug a single bucket of dirt since.


After spending millions to get it back to operational status the prices fell off on coal making it unfeasible to operate. At least it isn't cluttering the skyline in Hurricane Creek any more.

Hurricane Creek lies on the Fall Line of Appalachia. According to Office of Surface Mining we are not in Appalachia nor do we have mountain top removal (MTR) mining. False on both counts. This is MTR just as it is in West Virginia. Our mountains are smaller but it is still chops off the tops of mountains for temporary profits and leaves a desolate, worthless landscape behind.

Flying back we cut across the new PARA park on Hwy 216. It reminded me that if we want public access to clean spaces in nature it is up to us all to take pride and ownership of our environment and do all we can to protect it.

I love Hurricane Creek with a passion which is obvious to all who know me. I am that way because I see the potential and need for such places in our children and grand children's future.
 As always I want to thank SouthWings for making these aerial recon flights possible. We got a lot of good data to use in holding polluters accountable.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Alabama Power Donates Pavilion to Hurricane Creek Park

Alabama Power Donates Pavilion to Hurricane Creek Park

I had the privilege of attending a check presentation ceremony  on the banks of Hurricane Creek Yesterday. 

 Gary Minor, PARA Director invited me to be present when Alabama Power Company (APCo)presented them with a check for $35,000.00 to build a new pavilion at the park on 216. It will be located in the general area of the canoe put-in and swimming area. It has long been a goal of the Friends of Hurricane Creek to have an area such as this for teaching and recreation. Hurricane Creek is a living, breathing laboratory within a bike ride of The University of Alabama. This makes it even more important to have a place to teach from. 
I can envision grade school to college students  learning conservation, geology, botany and many more subjects in this new facility.

Several APCo representatives were on hand for the ceremony along with prominent people from the community and elected officials.

Gary Minor, PARA director introduced the speakers.Gary and I go way back to the days of Strokers Paddle Club when Mike Mills Gary and I paddled the creek. It's good to know he is now overseeing the progress at the park.

First up was APCo representative Mark Crews Mark stated that APCo was donating the pavilion for the people to better enjoy the park for education and outreach as well as recreation. Sometimes APCo gets a bad rep due to past irresponsible land management practices under right of ways.

Mr. Joseph Brown assured me that those days are gone and APCo was heading in a new direction in that area.  After a long conversation with Mr. Brown he agreed to meet with me and take a look at some concerns I have in the watershed. I welcome this opportunity to rebuild the bridge to a good working relationship.

Mr. Brown offered to help sponsor our Hurricane Creek Cleanups in the future. We applaud this as a great step forward.

Next up was Tuscaloosa County Commissioner Jerry Tingle. For those who do not know Mr. Tingle he is the county commissioner for this distract and a good friend to the creek and area surrounding it. Jerry has consistently pushed to funds to make this park a community asset which should be considered as important and valuable as any development property in the county. Places like Hurricane Creek Park offer an opportunity for children of all ages to come and learn about nature and conservation.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Southern-Fried Environmentalism

 Southern-Fried Environmentalism 

Meet Alabama’s John Wathen, a true son of the Deep South and one of its staunchest environmental and social justice activists. Author Steve Friess Photography Bryan Tarnowski

With a scruffy white beard, scraggly gray hair tucked under an American flag bandanna and a full-pitched Alabama twang, John Wathen seems a stereotypical Southerner of “Duck Dynasty” vintage. It would be easy to imagine him with a can of domestic beer in one hand and a hunting rifle in the other, trolling the woods and rivers around his Tuscaloosa home. Wathen does spend a lot of time in the Alabama backcountry, as well as on the Gulf Coast, but instead of a rifle, he carries a camera. His prey isn’t the wildlife that inhabits these parts, but the industry endangering the creatures and their habitat. You wouldn’t think it by the looks of him, but this 61-year-old son of the Deep South is arguably the most effective environmentalist in the U.S.

“John is a model and an inspiration,” says Robert F. Kennedy Jr., one of the country’s foremost environmentalists and president of the Waterkeeper Alliance, a national network of watchdogs who look after rivers, creeks and streams. Wathen is among its ranks, having served as the Hurricane Creekkeeper since 2003. As such, he patrols and advocates for Hurricane Creek, which passes through his property in Tuscaloosa.

“My first job,” Wathen tells me when I visit him in Alabama, “is to know everything that happens in Hurricane Creek watershed and to protect it.” But Wathen’s efforts reach farther than Hurricane Creek—most notably in the spring of 2010, when Wathen and a pilot from the environmental nonprofit group SouthWings flew over the Deepwater Horizon two weeks after it began spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

Wathen took pictures and video that went viral, he appeared on newscasts around the world, and the oil company later said that the damage was more serious than was initially reported. Wathen beat the mainstream media, he says, because he and his pilot refused to be kept from flying directly over the well. “That’s international waters there—they got no right to stop anyone,” Wathen says while showing me his pictures of oil-drenched dolphins and pelicans. “When I think someone’s lyin’ to me, I can’t take no for an answer. I just turn on my camera, start takin’ pictures and video, put ’em on my blog and on YouTube, and the world seems to pay attention.”

 Kennedy tells me that Wathen is a star in the Waterkeeper Alliance. “When we have our national conferences, everybody knows who John Wathen is,” he says. “Everybody loves him. He inspires people. He’s a very colorful character.” Case in point:
The Waterkeeper Alliance reimburses keepers who get tattoos of the group’s sturgeon logo. Most get them on their arms. Kennedy’s is on his leg. But Wathen’s stretches from one shoulder blade to the other, and he’s happy to show it to anyone who asks. Among those who have, as evidenced by one of his favorite pictures, is former President Bill Clinton.

 Raised in a middle-class white section of Birmingham, where students walked out of their high school in 1963 to protest forced racial integration, Wathen grew up in an atmosphere that didn’t care much for social justice, let alone issues of environmentalism. He was taught that black people were “uneducated, ignorant, worthless and shiftless.” It took a stint in the U.S. Navy as an air traffic controller during the Vietnam War to disabuse him of such views. “I saw up close as I served with black people in close quarters that none of that was true,” he says. Still, his ex-wife Renee Fredrick tells me, plenty of his local contemporaries came away from military service in that era without such enlightenment. “John just had something in him that told him to fight against unfairness where he sees it,” she says. For Wathen, the corporations he targets are not just guilty of environmental crimes. “They’re social crimes,” he tells me. “It’s one group of people imposing their will on another group, to their detriment, for profit.” What’s more, he notes, these cases tend to have a facet of racism to them, because toxic materials tend to be dumped into predominantly black communities.

One such instance was in Perry County, Alabama, where, in 2009, a landfill began accepting 3 million tons of coal ash (a highly toxic waste product of coal-fired power plants) from a middle-class Tennessee town 350 miles away. Day after day, train cars imported barrels of the stuff, which were emptied in the open air, blanketing the homes and waterways of Uniontown, one of America’s poorest communities.

Residents were getting sick. The noxious stench of the ash permeated nearby neighborhoods. Local news crews reported that the ash, laden with arsenic and mercury, was so corrosive it peeled paint off cars. But the national media hardly noticed until Wathen flew over Uniontown to take photos and video showing the disaster. Then he showed up at a meeting of Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice, a community group formed to combat the dumping, and interviewed homeowners for his YouTube channel. “If you wanna tell people what’s happening to you,” he told them, “then I wanna help you do that.” Those videos and photos, reposted by environmental groups around the world, drew the interest of MSNBC, the BBC and The New York Times. An Environmental Protection Agency investigation was opened and is ongoing. “His photos helped us get attention we needed,” says William Gibbs, a 71-year-old retiree who co-founded the Black Belt group. “He’s done a lot for us out here.”

On an unusually cool, overcast late May morning, we pile into a beat-up silver 2006 Ford F-150 with a cracked windshield for the John Wathen Environmental Outrage Tour of the Hurricane Creek watershed. To Wathen, it’s an ordinary day’s work, the basic rounds he makes to document ongoing environmental problems or concerns in his territory. Between us in the cab sits a massive plastic yellow case. It contains a collection of sophisticated cameras that are probably Wathen’s most expensive and prized possessions. He wears a T-shirt that reads, “Clean coal is a dirty lie,” a slogan he claims to have coined, and the ceiling of the cab is adorned with buttons bearing phrases that include, “We Fish, We Vote and So Do Our Families” and “Coal Ash Contaminates Our Lives.”

Clockwise from top left, Hurricane Creek,
The precarious train trestle in Tuscaloosa,
The John Wathen “Environmental Outrage Tour”
Including a flight over the Hurricane Creek watershed
With SouthWings pilot Tom Kablert

Our first stop: A rotting 118-year-old wooden train trestle at the center of Tuscaloosa that was designed for turn-of-the-1900s steam-engine trains. In recent years, it has become part of a rail corridor for huge shipments of crude oil from North Dakota and Canada to refineries along the Gulf of Mexico. As Wathen points to broken pillars hanging down or splitting, he describes the nightmare scenario: A bridge collapse sparks a massive explosion that wipes out downtown Tuscaloosa. Such incidents have happened elsewhere, most notably in July 2013, about 150 miles east of Montreal, when an oil convoy derailed and exploded, killing 47 people. Much of the oil that passes through Tuscaloosa, in fact, began taking that route after an oil-tanker derailment and explosion in November 2013 in Aliceville, Alabama, about 45 miles west of here. Nobody was injured in Aliceville, but oil coated nearby marshland, and a fire burned for weeks.

Even if a train didn’t explode, Wathen fears it would gush oil into his beloved creek.

 Last year, after Wathen posted a YouTube video showing the Tuscaloosa trestle straining under the weight of an endless convoy of train cars filled with oil, the chastened railroad spent $2.5 million to mend it. That only infuriates Wathen more. “You can reach your hands all the way into the wood,” he says, doing just that and pulling out fistfuls of sawdust. “This one is hangin’ with no bolts in it. And this is after $2.5 million in repairs! Not acceptable.”

From here, we drive to various vantage points from which Wathen shoots photos of a landfill that has exposed garbage blowing about. Because the dump hasn’t been properly capped, Wathen says, rain and wind will soon erode it and carry its junk into the creek. A lawsuit is in the planning stages, he says. This mess, too, is more than an environmental sin. Wathen takes me to the narrow, cracked-up street that leads to the landfill’s main entrance to show me a small roadside cemetery used for more than a century by Tuscaloosa’s black community. Many headstones and graves are coated in dust, littered with bits of trash and damaged by tires on tracks that didn’t stay squarely on the asphalt. Hundreds of mammoth vehicles pass this way daily, dropping bits of garbage and kicking up sandstorms that shower not just the graveyard but nearby houses, too. “These people can’t bury their dead out here without trash trucks rolling by,” he says. “Why should these people be treated any differently because they’re poor and black? You wouldn’t see this in the mayor’s neighborhood, I tell you that. This is for people who are politically worthless.”

It’s not all misery, though. At one particular bend of Hurricane Creek, Wathen’s mood brightens considerably. It is a secluded, shaded, peacefully trickling 20-foot-wide waterway, but as summer progresses and water from rain and Appalachian snowmelt feeds the creek, it will swell to triple this width, pick up speed and become a popular spot for canoeing and fishing. Wathen wants me to see that the creek is clean enough now to spawn schools of bream minnows, but he gets distracted. “Well, I’ll be damned,” he exclaims with glee. “Red horse carp didn’t used to be in here! This used to be a pollution conduit, full of iron from mine waste. We put a stop to a lot of that by putting the developers and industry on notice and making them do right. Now we see new life. This here is a healthy stream.” Alas, there’s still cause for concern. I slide my hand into the mud, enjoying the smooth, wet silkiness of it—until Wathen explains there’s a problem. “This sand don’t belong here,” he says with alarm. “That’s all sediment from construction sites. See how this is green in here? That’s nutrient enrichments coming from fertilizers they’re spraying on the ground up there. See the black in there? That’s coal. That’s comin’ out of the coal mine. I gotta find out where that’s comin’ from.”

The tour concludes a short walk from the creekside, at Wathen’s house, where we are greeted on the entry path by his dogs, a black Labrador called Smokey Joe and a large, affable mutt named Queenie. He lives in a long, narrow building jammed with evidence of his devotion to the outdoors, from an impressive collection of stone arrowheads found around the creek to his nature photos, which are hung in frames he carved from fallen trees. The back room is his office; in it, an Apple monitor sits beneath a large empty hornet’s nest. “That’s there as a reminder that we stir up more [stuff] back here than you can imagine,” he says. As I look at his images from the Gulf Coast oil spill and watch videos he’s posted that have drawn widespread attention, I begin to wonder how he can devote so much energy to a tiny creek almost nobody has heard of. He’s a bona fide social media star who gets calls from the international media when oil-tanker trains derail or coal ash is dumped in the wrong places. How does he stay focused on his immediate vicinity? “It don’t matter if it’s some obscure place or some two-bit polluter,” he explains. “This is my territory. Every waterway matters, because they all belong to me, to you, to every citizen of the United States, and nobody gets to poison it. I don’t care how big or small you are.”

Steve Friess is a freelance journalist based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He can attest that John Wathen also has terrific recommendations for Alabama barbecue.
 Read more at http://www.hemispheresmagazine.com/2015/09/01/southern-fried-environmentalism/#0Ti85DTeCDoXcrt8.99

Monday, August 17, 2015

UofA Outdoor Action 2015

UofA Outdoor Action 2015/2016

Spradling Bottom is a place few people know about on Hurricane Creek. It lies just inside the Hurricane Creek watershed above the confluence with the Black Warrior River. It was once owned and farmed by the Spradling family. For many years it was cut off from entry by a sand and gravel pit that has been long since reclaimed. Now it is owned by Dr's Doug and Angelia Woodward. Both are fine physicians from the Tuscaloosa area. They have graciously donated the use of the land to Friends of Hurricane Creek for a downstream takeout for canoes, kayaks, and Creekkeeper patrols.
Spradling Bottom, All photo copyrights by John L. Wathen / Flight provided by SouthWings
The house seen in the top center is the Woodward home. Hurricane Creek is right below the house and makes a horse shoe bend all the way around the bottom field.
 For years I have been limited to access to the mouth of the creek for surveillance during rain events due to private and government owned land issues. With this new location I will have permanent access to the mouth of the creek. It is critical to show people the total impact from poorly maintained construction sites, coal mining, poor road maintenance, and other earth disturbing activities In the photo on the left I was able to capture the view from a SouthWings flight.

This is what it looked like at 08:30 AM

The University of Alabama, Outdoor Action group led by Mr. Randy Mecredy showed up at 8:30 AM as scheduled. Student leaders took charge and laid out the marching orders for the days projects.

Anyone not paying attention got doused with the lead organizers water pistol!

             I wondered if by the end of the day if these smiles would still be so enthusiastic. It was going to be a long day after all.

 The project actually started a few days earlier in a swamp near Moundville. My good friends Nelson Brooke and Elizabeth Salter were married on the banks of a beautiful Cypress bog in an old ox-bow off of the Black Warrior River. A large deck was built for the wedding with this view as a backdrop for the ceremony.

Nelson's family owns the land and have been huge supporters of Friends of Hurricane Creek and your Hurricane Creekkeeper for many years. In keeping with their generosity Nelson donated the treated wood to be salvaged from the deck for various projects in and around the Hurricane Creek watershed. Using a crew from Outdoor Action we began taking it apart and re-purposing the wood at Spradling Bottom.

Crews began at once removing screws from the wood and stacking it where we could get it for the new change room for FoHC members who paddle this section to get out of wet clothes.

The deck was screwed together 5 years ago so there was a lot of work just getting it ready for use.

While that was going on another crew began clearing the invasive species, privit from the area where a pavilion will be built later. All nine species of privet currently in the southeast U.S. are invasive. Biological species invasion is considered a main component of global ecosystem change due to changes in biogeochemical cycles and disturbance regimes.
Invasive species such as privet are known to alter the dominant vegetation type, soil properties, animal behavior, and the natural cycling of resources.

Some of the bushes had grown into trees that really took some persuading to get them out!

Once we had a clear working space construction on the change room began in earnest. I could tell that many of the volunteers had little experience with carpentry but is was fun watching their excitement as they improvised ways to get the job done.

Lunch Break!

After a hard morning clearing and cleaning the group took a lunch break. I would normally sit down and rest my old bones on a break but not this group!  Some sat in the newly cleared road and ate while singing while another group went to the water.

The creek was a bit muddy from the rain the night before but that didn't stop the fun.
Some even took advantage of it to have lunch in the water

There were hammocks hung in the trees and used as sofas for those who wanted to sit in the woods and talk.

When the crew came in from clearing the creek of debris I was pleased and disheartened at the same time. The number of tires they removed in just a short stretch of creek was too many. Everything from passenger car tires to huge tractor tires and even one big truck tire someone descried as weighing a ton.

We see this a lot. For some unknown reason there is an element of people who think it is ok to drive to the nearest stream crossing and toss out all manner of trash ranging from old tires to household garbage. We expected to have a lot of debris after the April 27, 2011 tornado but these tires were not from the tornado. They came from people who simply do not care about our waterways.

After lunch and before work began again there was a lot of singing and then the dance lessone broke out... What a hoot to be around these energetic young adults.

At the end of the work day many of the volunteers hit the water. It was great to see this many young adult enjoying Hurricane Creek and hear their remarks about the majesty of it all.

I couldn't be everywhere. We had several projects going on that day that I couldn't go and take photos. I hope the students will soon share any they may have so I can post them but here is what I found when I went to check on the extended projects.

At the Watson's Bend campground privit had choked all beach access for the most part. The group sent to clear it did a fantastic job leaving big wide trails to the water at two separate locations for canoe put it and takeout.

This was the site of many church Baptisms throughout history. It is still a great swimming hole today after several years of help from
U of A Outdoor Action volunteers helping remove the tornado debris.

This site was covered with privit for over a decade that I know of. After the tornado it was the only shady place left in the campground. Once again, using Outdoor Action volunteers as well as a host of other organizations we were able to clear it for camping. This year the group opened up a newer place to take out canoes and just walk down to the creek for summer wading. 

I can say enough nice things about Dr. Fran Oneal, Randy Mecredy and all of the crew at the University for starting the tradition of bringing this workforce to Hurricane Creek. It has been a great relationship that I hope lasts for generations to come.

At the end of the day we had a new location cleared for a take out and entry point to the mouth of the creek,

a changing room framed up for changing into dry clothes after a day paddling,

A large enough spot for a pavilion later to be equipped with picnic tables and a dry roof,

and a road leading to the site wide enough for a canoe trailer to back in.

It would have taken me several weeks to accomplish what this group did in a single day.

I went back after the water cleared to get these shots to show just how beautiful this site really is. Friends of Hurricane Creek volunteer Colin Williams enjoys the view for the first time.

 Looking downstream to the mouth of the creek.

Looking upstream to Watson's Bend.

 On the way out I couldn't resist the sunset over Spradling Bottoms.
Thank you to the 2015/16 University of Alabama "Outdoor Action" group for a great job again. It was great seeing older students who were returning and the many new faces who came to Hurricane Creek for the first time. The smiles and glowing comments sure made my day!