“Fight against the bullies”

A conversation with David Whiteside of Tennessee River Keeper about the fight for clean water in the Deep South. This conversation was recorded on August 29, 2022. 

By Maximillian Alvarez

 

A group of people pose behind a large pile of black trash bags. One person holds an American flag aloft. Another person holds a banner with the word "Riverkeeper". A river is visible in the background.
Tennessee Riverkeeper cleanup crew

 

David Whiteside is the founder and executive director of Tennessee River Keeper, a nonprofit organization that was created in 2009 with the mission to protect the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers and surrounding tributaries from pollution. “We do that by enforcing environmental laws and educating the public,” David told me when we spoke in August. “We look for illegal pollution that’s going into our water and we litigate against the polluters when we have to.” And David knows he has his work cut out for him: “We’re a pretty litigious organization because the Tennessee River and its tributaries, and parts of the Cumberland River, are among the most polluted waterways in the country. So there’s no shortage of toxic pollution threats and illegal pollution that we find, especially in the Deep South… We defend the water supply for 6.3 million southerners. That’s a big area and a lot of people to defend the water for. But our bodies are mostly—about 60%—water, so when we protect the water, we protect the water supply and ultimately ourselves and public health.”

It is not hyperbole to say that the Tennessee River is one of the most polluted waterways in the United States—in fact, it’s one of the most polluted in the world. As Margaret Renkl wrote in a harrowing 2019 op-ed for The New York Times,

A study announced earlier this year found that the level of microplastics in the Tennessee River is among the highest ever measured. These small particles are known to accumulate in the gills and stomachs of ocean fish, and to move up the food chain when a larger fish eats a smaller one… And we are the creatures at the top of the food chain.

But it’s not just plastic. Through the auspices of the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Tennessee River system is the reason much of the Upper South finally gained access to electricity, but T.V.A. has not always been a good steward. In 2008, one of the worst environmental disasters in the history of this country occurred near Kingston, Tenn., when a holding pond’s dike broke, spilling a billion tons of toxic coal ash into waterways that drain into the Tennessee River. More than a decade later, T.V.A. is still storing coal ash in unlined pits and ponds that leach heavy metals into the ground water and ultimately into the river.

And for the past year Chelsea Brentzel, a reporter for WHNT News in Huntsville, Ala., has been investigating a story so outrageous it would be unbelievable if it weren’t taking place in the context of these other environmental degradations: For nearly a decade, the 3M Company’s plant in Decatur, Ala., illegally released toxic chemicals into the Tennessee River with the full knowledge of the Alabama Department of Environmental Management. The practice, which Ms. Brentzel’s reporting helped to end, came to light only because dangerous levels of those chemicals were found in the area’s drinking water.

As David told me in our discussion, “We’re kind of the poster child for coal ash pollution, for PFOS pollution (which is Teflon and Scotch Guard) and forever chemicals, and for microplastic pollution too.” But that was not always the case. “For a while, the national and global conversation about microplastics and plastics was only focusing on the beaches, the ocean, and things you saw there. But in 2018, National Geographic, partnering with the Tennessee Aquarium, did a groundbreaking study and a cover article… that focused on freshwater microplastic pollution, and they focused their study on the Tennessee River. They found some of the most alarming levels of microplastics in water and that made my river the poster child for plastic pollution, and it changed the national and global conversation to where we realized that this plastic pollution wasn’t just occurring on our beaches and in the ocean, but it was occurring in the creeks and the rivers much further inland.”

Again, there is no single source driving the destructive pollution of these vital waterways; sadly, there are many. And combatting each type of pollution (from coal ash and PFOS to litter and microplastics) requires different methods, strategies, and alliances. With a smirk on his face, though, David noted that this is one of the aspects of his life’s work that he has found a way to enjoy. “One of the things that excites me about this work—in a sadistic way, I guess—is I’m never working on the same pollution issue on any given day or any week.” And David’s passion for this work practically radiates off of him. As someone who has dedicated his life to conducting river cleanups, educating the public about the extent of freshwater pollution, tracking polluters and fighting them in court, one has to imagine that the sheer number, frequency, diversity, and intensity of pollutants is as depressing as the task of holding polluters accountable is daunting. But, as he told me, “I have to find hope somewhere,” and in those moments when things may seem hopeless, David draws strength from remembering that he is carrying on a proud legacy, and his environmentalism is a natural outgrowth of a long family tradition of rabble-rousing resistance to injustice.

“I was pretty much born into this work,” David told me. “My family has been involved with the Waterkeeper Alliance and the Water and River Keepers since about the early 1980s.” Long before that, though, his family was, as the late John Lewis would say, making good trouble. “My maternal ancestors have deep roots in Alabama and the South going back approximately seven generations. My ancestors on the maternal side got together in Winston County, Alabama—they didn’t want to fight in a Civil War, and around 1859, 1860, they voted to secede from the Confederacy at Loonies Tavern in Winston County, Alabama, which is in the Tennessee River Valley… Soon after that, my great, great, great grandfather was elected sheriff of Fayette County, Alabama, and took it as his mission to fight the Ku Klux Klan around the 1890s, and he temporarily disbanded them and sent them running in all directions… And then, going into the 1950s and 1960s, my great uncle was a federal judge named Frank Johnson Jr, who fought Governor George Wallace and Bull Connor, who was Governor Wallace’s kind of enforcer, and ended up issuing landmark decisions that played a significant role in helping Dr. King and efforts to desegregate the South. He heard the Rosa Parks case, he issued the permit for the march from Selma to Montgomery, and really made a bunch of other pivotal decisions that changed the course of the South forever and for the better.” Oh, and one other thing that David casually mentioned in our conversation: his godfather, and another source of inspiration, is Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Coming from a family with that kind of political pedigree, and feeling the weight of responsibility to honor such an incredible legacy, has to be intimidating. But David, in his own way, is very much keeping the family torch lit. “I believe that this, fighting for clean water, is a continuation of my family’s civil rights legacy. As I said, our bodies are over 60% water, so if we protect the water supply, we protect the people. But additionally, a lot of this pollution falls disproportionately on the backs of people of color, the poor, and the politically disenfranchised. There’s been a long pattern going back 160 years of my family standing up for the disenfranchised, of banging our heads and fists up against the walls of the oppressors of the Deep South. I always felt that desire to fight for people, to fight against the bullies.”

The problem, of course, is that the bullies are running the show. As David rightly noted in our conversation, the work that he and other environmental advocates do is—and, unless something changes, will continue to be—impossibly hamstrung by an entire apparatus of interlocking legal, political, and economic systems that are designed to protect the interests of polluting corporations. Without serious campaign finance reform, for instance, there is only so much anyone can do to curtail ecological destruction via legislation or governmental regulation when our existing system is set up to enable the polluters to handpick political candidates and crush any dissenters under the weight of endless amounts of dark money. “It’s legalized bribery,” David told me. “And it’s gotten worse and worse with Citizens United. In the last 10 to 20 years, the dark money and PAC money has gone up, and we can’t trace anything anymore—they’re buying off all our politicians. And most of these politicians, if they take a courageous stance and start calling out the polluters in their state, or in their local community, or on a federal level, then whatever industry they’re challenging is just going to start going all in on any unintelligent, corruptible opponent that might run against them, and all of a sudden their war chest is filled to the brim… It’s not a level playing field anymore. It makes it really difficult for environmentalists and consumer rights advocates and public health advocates to run for office or to stay in office. Our country’s become one of the most corrupt countries in the world as a result of that. We’re the laughingstock of the world, because here you can go buy a politician, and then they… allow for chemicals to be dumped in the drinking water, and they don’t care if people get cancer, they just want to get reelected.”

One bright spot that David pointed to, however, is the fact that the democratic will of the people tends to point in the opposite direction. While corporate media and corporate-backed politicians do their best to divide portions of the population and pit them against one another, the need and desire for a healthy environment is surprisingly trans-partisan: “From what I’ve seen—I’m in red states, Alabama and Tennessee—these are not ‘Democratic values.’ No one wants carcinogens in their drinking water. It’s been painted as a liberal issue, but when you talk about our drinking water and our air, it doesn’t really matter how people vote or what the color of their skin is; when we start having this conversation, people get pissed off, and they’re like, ‘That’s exactly what’s wrong with our country right now!’ Everyone has a relative or a neighbor or close friend who got cancer way too young, and they suspect that it wasn’t purely genetic and that there was something in the environment that probably triggered that. It’s common sense. And, you know, politicians in Washington, DC—they’re really good at distracting and dividing our country and trying to make us fight over issues that are not as lowest-common-denominator as clean air, clean water, clean soil, and clean food.”

Moreover, while it is all too easy (and beyond understandable) to look around and despair about the fact that people at the grassroots level appear to be making no headway in fighting the unchecked power and stubborn intransigence of the fossil fuel industry, the petrochemical industry, etc., change is happening. As David said to me, no matter how small that change is, no matter where it occurs, with change comes the potential for more change—and if we see things moving in the right direction, our job is to throw our weight behind efforts to keep things moving and to push them even farther in the right direction. For instance, as unexpected as it was, David told me near the end of our conversation that “One of the most positive sources of hope and change to me is within the music industry,” and he told me why he and Tennessee Riverkeeper have done everything they can to support it.

“The music industry just opened up one of the most advanced, environmentally responsible, eco-friendly, and least wasteful amphitheaters in the country—in Huntsville, Alabama, of all places—called the Orion Amphitheater. They are using reusable cups to fight single-use plastics, and that is one of the most hopeful and positive changes that I’ve seen… They’re using reusable cups, and they’ve got a chip on the bottom that can tell how many times it’s been used and how many times it’s been washed. When you order a drink at this concert venue, it’s poured into a reusable cup. They try to limit all of the waste that comes into the venue… They’ve tried to eliminate all of the cans and things like that and bring it behind the bar, and they can capture 91% of these reusable cups. They’re also doing so many other things to just limit their waste in the first place: they’re donating all the food that’s left over to local food banks, they’re composting everything.”

Will the construction of one eco-friendly music venue be enough to curtail climate chaos? Of course not. But the more that such projects succeed, the more that such basic changes to consumer culture become commonplace, the less hopeless things seem, the less impossible change becomes. And that is one of the many reasons why the work that David and the folks at Tennessee Riverkeeper do, and the particular approach they take to targeting the primary sources of pollution and holding major polluters accountable, is so vital to the struggle for an ecologically sustainable society. “I’ve never really made a practice of telling individuals how to live their lives,” David told me. “I don’t tell someone they ought to go drive a Prius; I think it’s much better for us to go after the car manufacturers in Detroit to make more fuel-efficient cars. Go after the source of the pollution. It’s much easier to sue the bad guys and the big polluting bullies and force them to change their ways… rather than try to change the behavior of 350 million Americans.”

For your consideration:

Is there something you have personally accomplished, or some larger accomplishment that you contributed to, that previously seemed impossible to you? How did that impossibility give way to possibility and ultimately become reality?

 

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