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February 6, 2001

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Newsmaker Interview

The following interview with Casi Callaway, executive director of Mobile Bay Watch, Inc. was conducted via email.

Harbinger: Could you give our readers a brief history of Mobile Bay Watch, Inc.

Callaway: Mobile Bay Watch, Inc./Mobile BayKeeper began as West Bay Watch in March 1997 when a group of concerned parents, business leaders, doctors and residents found out that a new chemical plant (Phenolchemie) was planned for their neighborhood. The first research found the health and environmental concerns associated with phenol production. They also found that expansions of the existing industries were planned and other new smokestack industries were being actively recruited to the area. The final straw that solidified community involvement and a commitment to the future of the organization was finding the Natural Resources Defense Council's Toxic Release Inventory breakdown statistics. Of more than 3,000 counties across America, Mobile came up number one in 1995 for toxicants released to the air that are recognized to cause developmental disorders and reproductive disorders. Mobile was number five for cancer hazards that year and in the top ten for many other major health concerns.

By June of 1998, West Bay Watch had filed several lawsuits and decided to hire a full-time director. The name was changed to Mobile Bay Watch, Inc. (MBW) in large part because, although Mobile County was the cause of many environmental concerns, the results of pollution affect both counties -- there are no barriers to or from pollution. A second change in the name came in September of 1999 when MBW became a part of the international Water Keeper Alliance. The Alliance is dedicated to protecting the public's right to clean and healthy waterways, and Mobile Bay Watch, Inc./Mobile BayKeeper (MBW/MBK) is dedicated to ending water quality degradation. In our application to add Mobile BayKeeper to our work, we made a commitment to working on researching and potentially restoring the natural flow hindered by the construction of the Causeway, creating a citizen reporting system to help track problems as they arise, and requiring polluters to clean up their mistakes.

The good news for Mobile County is that we have seen local industries working to reduce their Toxic Inventory emissions and in 1998, Mobile County dropped from number four in total emissions to number ten. MBW/MBK has also been invited to the table to meet with local legislators, industrial and business leaders and industrial recruiters. One result of these meetings has been to secure a cumulative and complete Air Quality Study of Toxins in Mobile County among other things. Additionally, while MBW/MBK does not support new industries requiring air permits coming into the community until the Air Quality Study is complete, we have had a hand in convincing many of the Industrial Development Board's (IDB) recruits into lowering their emissions and using better technology.

We now have members in Mobile and Baldwin Counties as well as many from across the state and the Gulf Coast. The group has grown to more than 2,400 members, and we will continue to tackle air and water toxins and pollution problems throughout the Mobile Bay Area.

Harbinger: Could you give our readers a brief description of your background.

Callaway: I was raised in Mobile and was the last Senior Class President of Julius T. Wright as an all-girls' school. I went to Emory University and received a Bachelors of Arts degree in Philosophy and Ecology in 1991. A group of students from my freshman dorm started Students Involved in Resources and the Environment, and once I finally went to one of their meetings, it took only three weeks before I became the Southeastern Regional College Campus Coordinator for Earth Day 1990.

My next "real" job was with Clean Water Action -- a Washington D.C.-based environmental advocacy organization. I started as a trainee in March 1993 and moved through the ranks to become the D.C. Field Staff Director and the Florida Program Director for the D.C. Office. My work with Clean Water Action took me to twelve states on at least fifty local, state, and federal environmental campaigns and included public education, research of political issues, lobbying at every level of government and fundraising. I also worked on the political campaigns of about thirty candidates and won about 75 percent of them

I moved back home in July 1998 to accept the position of Executive Director of MBW/MBK. I am responsible for public education, research, a small amount of lobbying; and fundraising, including developing a strong membership base and grant writing. The Governor has honored MBW/MBK and me with appointments to the Alabama Commission on Environmental Initiatives and the Scenic Byways Advisory Council. Because of our extensive work on the Scenic Byways legislation (along with other local environmental groups) I was also chosen to serve as Vice Chair of the Council.

Harbinger: How important is it for Mobile Bay Watch, Inc. to get the support of physicians in your organization's causes?

Callaway: To many people and environmental organizations, the protection of the environment means trees and endangered species. From its inception, MBW/MBK has been about protecting people. The founding president and several of the original board members are medical doctors. The health of the environment is an indicator of the health of the community. Physicians have helped raise awareness that air and water quality directly affect our health and, most importantly, the health of our children. Research into types of cancer, disease hot spots, number of asthma attacks, and many other health risks help us determine whether or not we should be concerned about the number and types of industrial facilities we have.

It has also always been a contention of MBW/MBK that industrial recruitment should contain a health-risk analysis component when the Chamber of Commerce and the IDB figure the cost-benefit analysis of a new industrial facility moving into the community. Presently, the University of South Alabama's Dr. Semoon Chang reviews a facility based on how much we give in terms of tax incentives, abatements and improvements, compared to how much tax revenue the facility will bring into the community. We feel, and are working with Chamber of Commerce and IDB officials to ensure, that environmental and health concerns should be added to that simple cost factor. For example, if we include millions of dollars in visits to doctors' offices and hospitals in the cost benefit analysis, we will find no reason to bring in that particular new facility.

Because of our commitment to protecting the community from health issues ranging from ozone, which causes respiratory problems, to toxicants, which cause cancers, reproductive and developmental disorders, we now have more than 75 physicians and their families as members.

Harbinger: Mobile Bay Watch, Inc. has been very instrumental in lobbying for the Air Quality Study as part of the efforts to improve air quality in the Mobile area. What efforts are your group involved in to improve water quality of Mobile Bay?

Callaway: We are working on several water-quality issues. First, we are involved in a lawsuit with the Mobile Area Water & Sewer Service for violating the Clean Water Act more than 2,000 times over a five-year period. When this suit is complete, we hope to have a system that can withstand Mobile's typical rain events and keep raw and partially- treated sewage out of Mobile Bay and out of our back yards. We are also a founding member of the Scenic Causeway Coalition. This group is dedicated to researching the impact the Causeway has on Mobile Bay and the Tensaw River Delta as well as making the Causeway into one of Alabama's Scenic Byways. This distinction could bring tourists to the area to see the beauty and, we hope, bring funding to restore and/or protect the natural areas and wildlife habitats of shrimp, oysters, red-bellied turtles and birds, among others.

MBW/MBK has been involved with the Mobile Bay National Estuary Program (NEP) since late 1998. I serve as Co-Chair of the Human Uses Subcommittee and have been nominated to serve on the Management Committee. While the NEP has seen its share of problems in large part because of the difficulty in pulling together so many stakeholders into one working body, the results of the Comprehensive Conservation Management Plan are expected to be a good balance between protecting the Bay and maintaining economic growth. A new group called Coastal Alabama Clean Water Partnership follows fairly closely with the NEP, but has more of a regulatory component and looks to review permitting, water withdrawal, Total Maximum Daily Loads (how much of a pollutant or nutrient a waterbody can handle), and impaired streams. The Clean Water Action Plan is designed to allow community input and review permits on a watershed-wide basis.

Lastly, when MBW added MBK we decided to start a citizen guardian program. The Keeper Hotline and Patrol is still on the ground floor, but even in its foundling stage it enables citizens to call in problems, questions, and concerns as they see them both on the water and off. For people with boats, we ask that you become a part of the Keeper Boat Patrol and report in regularly. Everyone, however, can participate by taking a form we've created and keeping an eye out for things that look out of place or somehow "wrong." We then take your form or your phone call and follow up with the appropriate agency and work until we see the problem solved or learn that it isn't a problem. We are working to establish a database to review repeat offenders and locations that have more problems than others (Database program writers NEEDED!)

Harbinger: What are some of the other issues that Mobile Bay Watch is currently involved with?

Callaway: One critical issue that we see in the area is a lack of diversity among boards, particularly Mobile's Industrial Development Board. In a community that received high praise for developing an outstanding Stakeholder Team for the Air Quality Study, allowing the IDB to remain closed does not seem right. This board represents only large business interests and is missing components such as a health official or doctor, a representative from the environmental community, a land-use planner, or a representative from the tourism industry. We are happy to hear that Dr. Ken Brewington has accepted an offer from Mayor Dow to join the IDB. However, he has not yet been brought before the City Council for confirmation. There are at least three additional open seats and several members in need of being reconfirmed, so we know that options exist for adding people to the IDB, and we are working to make this happen quickly.

Harbinger: What is (are) the most challenge task(s) that you have faced as executive director of Mobile Bay Watch, Inc.?

Callaway: The most challenging task I have faced is striking a balance between people who are concerned about their children's health and business leaders who appear to want to continue with the status quo. I believe that everyone wants to protect the health of the community and everyone wants to see continued economic growth. I also believe that there is a situation where everyone can win -- not a compromise, but a viable solution in which business and industrial leaders can continue to make profits while they protect the health of the citizens of our community.

I also feel strongly that we can all begin to trust one another and work together, but trust must be earned, and that has been an incredible challenge.


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