(Mobile, Ala.) - Following an alarming video posted to Facebook late Saturday night, Mobile Baykeeper has done what they do best: investigate potential pollution. Executive Director Casi Callaway received the video on Sunday and called Fairhope Utilities to report a potential sewage spill. On Monday, Program Director Cade Kistler, Program Coordinator Meredith Diskin, and AmeriCorps Patrol member Sarah Asher went out to investigate. Today they were able to read the water samples they took, which all showed bacteria levels below the EPA threshold. The identification of the substance remains unclear.
"We highly commend the person who took the video. His post raised important red flags for how much we value our ability to swim, fish, and play in beautiful Mobile Bay and how every citizen has a role in solving pollution problems," says Callaway. Fairhope Utilities noted that Callaway was the first to call them, despite the video being online and going viral for more than twelve hours. "Anytime anybody sees what they think is a sewage spill or other environmental concern, I urge them to make the call," says Callaway. "You can always call Mobile Baykeeper to report any and all environmental concerns at 433-4229 or submit information at mobilebaykeeper.org/report."
Bacteriological samples take 24 hours to process. The Mobile Baykeeper team did not get out to sample until about thirty hours after the sighting, and much of the substance had by then been dispersed by the tides. Knowing this, Kistler decided to look for signs of a sewage spill. Investigating four different lift stations and treatment plants in Daphne and Fairhope, the Baykeeper team detected no sign of a weekend spill. They even trekked through Titi Swamp but did not find enough water to test.
Instead, they took water samples from two locations: one sample from Sweetwater Branch and two from Point Clear at Zundel Road (see map). The tests came back today below the EPA threshold: 63 mpn/100mL at Sweetwater and an average of 84.5 mpn/100mL at Point Clear at Zundel Road. The EPA threshold for swimming is 104mpn/100mL.
This kind of testing is par for the course for Mobile Baykeeper. Through their "Swim Where It's Monitored" (SWIM) program, they test 9 sites in and around Mobile Bay weekly during the summer and monthly in the winter. They analyze water samples for the bacteria Enterococci, which indicates fecal matter. These data add to those of the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM), making a total of 34 sites tested in and around Mobile Bay. Mobile Baykeeper reports their own and ADEM's results to Swim Guide, a mobile app and website, as well as updating their own website and sending a weekly email to subscribers. Anyone can sponsor their own SWIM site at mobilebaykeeper.org/swim.
Testing more sites for water quality is driving sewage utilities to make critical investments in upgrading their facilities, lines, lift stations, and more. There are many causes for overflows, but 75% of spills are caused heavy rain. Because some utilities have old sewage lines with breaks and holes, rainwater can get into these pipes and cause overflows. Where utilities have not invested enough in repairing and replacing their sewage lines, heavy rains and flooding cause large spills.
"This is why investing in our infrastructure is so crucial," says Callaway. "Without adequate staffing and resources, utilities don't have any defense against these overflows. Fairhope being named the #2 most polluted beach for 2018 is not an accolade we want for our community or Mobile Bay. Reporting pollution concerns, adding more test sites, and speaking up to elected officials will ensure investments are made to clean up Mobile Bay."
For now at least, what we saw in the Facebook video will remain a mystery. There's no clear indication of what it could have been.
It's important to remember that every citizen has the opportunity to solve problems simply by reporting them. One thing is for sure: Mobile Baykeeper is on the case.
Mobile Baykeeper is a non-profit 501 (c)(3) organization that works to provide citizens a means to protect the beauty, health and heritage of the Mobile Bay Watershed and our coastal communities. To learn more about Mobile Baykeeper, please visit www.mobilebaykeeper.org.