Mobile Baykeeper Fights Against Pollution

By Milena Mata | Contributor | mm1934@jagmail.southalabama.edu

Photo by: Michael Dunn | Photographer

There are 21 million tons of coal ash surrounding areas of Mobile Bay that can be damaging to the environment, according to Cade Kistler, program director of Mobile Baykeeper. “Protecting Mobile Bay: Our Story” was the third event in the Spring 2022 ecology series held by the Department of English at the Archeology Museum on March 30. 

Mobile Baykeeper is a nonprofit organization that advocates for the protection of Mobile Bay Watershed. The organization serves to solve pollution by building relationships with the government – rather than just with other environmental organizations – to gain affirmative action. This year is the 25th anniversary of the organization. 

Kistler is a local activist and has been the program director of Mobile Baykeeper for six years. Kistler works to engage and educate the community, especially the young people. He is now also the organization’s baykeeper. Kistler focuses on looking at the big picture and long-term plans. He emphasizes research and collaboration with others to find different solutions.

“We are an environmental watchdog, so we are the organization looking into issues trying to find and stop pollution and hold folks accountable,” said Kistler. “Waterkeepers are unique organizations in that we do our work, and we are not afraid to use the rule of law.” 

Kistler addressed the importance of coal ash impacting Alabama’s ecosystem. The Barry Steam Plant in Mobile has burned coal for energy since the late 1950s, leaving coal ash as a by-product in a large pond. This leaks chemicals such as arsenic, mercury and lead into the groundwater. According to Kistler, this poses a threat to Mobile Bay because the ash can move downstream and increase health risks for humans.

The Alabama Power Company wants to enclose the pond under a cap to keep the coal ash in place. Kistler claimed this does not fully solve the problem because groundwater still absorbs the ash, continuing the issue of pollution. 

“It’s really not solving a problem. It’s pushing it off into the future,” Kistler said.

According to the program director, a better alternative is to remove the ash from vulnerable areas near waterways and place it in modern landfills or recycle it in concrete. However, landfills can be harmful to the environment.

The Mobile Bay Watershed is a biologically diverse ecosystem, covering 65% of the land area in all of Alabama. It also consists of 250 separate waterways.

Part of what drives this organization is the idea that Mobile Bay belongs to the people, and it should be something everyone can enjoy without fear of pollution. Kistler’s goal is to make it a safe and fun place for people to swim.

Kistler had maps of the wetlands in Alabama to show that about 25,000 acres were lost over the course of about 45 years. Wetlands are important for flood control and the reduction of pollution.

However, Alabama fills wetlands with dirt for development. Mobile Baykeeper makes legal arguments and uses the Clean Water Act to explain why this should not happen. Landfills can be dangerous because the water can filter through the waste and bring pollution into the wetlands. Kistler works to prevent this from leaving the landfill.

“If you get involved in advocacy, what you find out is that every inch is hard-fought,” said Kistler. “Every one of you has a role to play.”

For Kistler, it is not all about science, but also about telling stories to others to spread awareness of the issue. Kistler encourages people to visit the website and vote. It is important to set goals with a clear purpose and get many people involved to advocate for the environment. Kistler encourages young people to become members of other environmental organizations. Everyone’s stories are important because they affect the future.