It “was written in typical Baykeeper fashion – to mislead the reader and promote scare tactics.” That’s what Fairhope Mayor Karin Wilson wrote about a press release written and released by Executive Director Casi Calloway and Mobile Baykeeper.
In this one line, Wilson summed up what I heard from multiple sources as I followed up on the actions of Baykeeper following the incident that sparked those scathing words.
One of the most critical components of success for any advocacy group is earning and maintaining trust; this is a goal that seems to elude Mobile Baykeeper and Calloway. Last month we reported on the conflict between and Fairhope Mayor Karin Wilson.
If you missed it, Callaway made serious allegations against the City of Fairhope and Mayor Karin Wilson for what she insinuated was raw sewage being dumped in the Mobile Bay. Even local news outlet and frequent Callaway sympathizer Lagniappe criticized her in an Aug. 13, 2019 article for her overzealous attempt to grab headlines without the actual facts in hand. As Lagniappe wrote, “To be fair, maybe Mobile Baykeeper Executive Director Casi Callaway could have toned down the rhetoric in a July 30 news release about a viral video purporting to show untreated sewage floating on the surface of Mobile Bay.”
Fairhope Mayor Karin Wilson was quick to respond to Callaway’s overt politicizing of the issue, firing a missive to Callaway and her board that said in part, “I have read Baykeeper’s mission featured on the website and do not see how divisive propaganda and the constant finger-pointing is effective? Why doesn’t Baykeeper hold itself to the same accountability as it does everyone else?”
That’s a question neither Callaway nor her board has ever answered. Now, Callaway and Baykeeper are again trying to grab headlines, and rake in new contributions, with their most recent politicizing the plan to comply with federal regulations by closing the Barry Steam Plant coal ash site.
According to Baykeeper’s annual report, the group credits itself as being an “Informed voice of reason.” At least one local voice, the Coastal Alabama Partnership’s Wiley Blankenship, finds that description more than a little dubious.
Blankenship has closely watched Baykeeper’s messaging on coal ash and monitored Alabama Power’s proposed plan to close its Mobile-area storage site. According to Blankenship, “The worst thing any group can do is put out information that’s half baked. Base it on science and back it up with science,” he says. “It appears that is not what Baykeeper is doing on this issue.”
For example, Blankenship says Baykeeper is claiming there’s going to be a problem with the coal ash site in the case of a hurricane. “I’m looking at it from a more logical standpoint. Why would you want to take 30 years to close the site, leaving it exposed to the environment and having to transport it through our community? You’re creating more potential for environmental damage to nature and to humans. If it’s responsibly closed in place, it’s secured and monitored.”
Blankenship went on to say, “I’ve been to this facility. No one is hiding anything. At some point, you have to trust the process and the fact regulators have said this is a safe approach. Moving it potentially creates more issues environmentally to the community than keeping it there and sealing it. Moving it is categorically riskier.”
In a phone interview with Casi Callaway, she explained that Mobile Baykeeper has multiple projects and priorities. She noted that among the issues the organization is actively involved in beyond opposing the coal ash storage plan are monitoring sewage spills and fighting problems with stormwater drainage due to construction projects.
An analysis of both Mobile Baykeeper’s website and its Facebook page, however, provides little detail of the ongoing work they are purporting to do on these issues. In fact, most “priority items” aren’t highlighted or discussed with any regularity.
On the other hand, there appear to be as many Facebook posts about Callaway’s 50th birthday in the last month than nearly any individual specific issue. In a review of posts since Aug. 1, 2019 the group’s criticism on coal ash received more than triple the coverage of any other single issue or event. Construction stormwater pollution got one post and that was a repost of the Cahaba Riverkeeper rather than any progress, updates or information on the issues facing Mobile Bay.
It’s not just Facebook either. Baykeeper’s website currently features five topics in the slider at the top of its page, it currently includes coal ash (the main slide), its water testing program “Swim”, an upcoming fundraising event and community celebration, the group’s store, and a link to join. As for the group’s priorities on its website, the last time the page for sewer issues page was updated was nearly two years ago on Dec. 19, 2017.
Blankenship found this disproportionate pattern of attention puzzling saying, “Coal ash has become the Baykeeper’s rallying call when the greatest threats to the environment in this area continue to be the stormwater and wastewater issues that are constantly impacting residents.” In a Facebook post on August 10, 2019, Baykeeper wrote, “Actions speak louder than words.” That’s advice worth following for the group itself.
A growing chorus of voices is asking why Mobile Baykeeper and Casi Callaway continue to sensationalize and politicize important environmental issues seemingly more concerned with speaking loudly than speaking meaningfully. That kind of approach, when repeated time and time again as they are doing, begs the question of their real motives. Is Callaway more interested in actual environmental protection and activism or raising money and furthering her own political agenda and potential future political aspirations?