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.”
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.