Summer 2010: Features
The Gulf Warrior
Mobile Baykeeper Casi Callaway 91C Leads Battle to Fend Off Oil Spill
Cleaning up after the Gulf oil spill is “very toxic work,” warns Dean Linda McCauley, an environmental expert and the dean of Emory’s nursing school, in a video interview about some of the human health concerns associated with the ecological disaster—from the physical effects of inhaling chemicals to depression.
Story and photos by Tom Nugent
Standing at the edge of rain-swept Mobile Bay, Casi Callaway 91C takes a long, hard look at the line of barges that her team of pollution fighters has moored just offshore.
The huge barges—along with hundred of yards of floating yellow boom—are the team’s last line of defense against millions of gallons of approaching crude oil.
“The barges will knock down the waves,” says Callaway, “and that will help slow the oil. But we need more boom. And we need underwater boom that can reach all the way down to the bottom. Right now, we’re only equipped to stop oil that’s floating on the surface—and that isn’t good enough, because we’ve got some reports that there are several plumes [of underwater] oil approaching the Bay.”
She pauses to think for a moment, then yanks her Blackberry from a shirt pocket. “Please pardon me,” she says, “but I’ve got to make some calls.”
A moment later, she’s punching in the number for the Mobile Press-Register, the region’s largest newspaper. “Hey, it’s Casi. Listen . . . I’m over here in Magnolia Springs, and we’re getting reports of oil in the bay. Some plumes are moving in right now. And I took a call a minute ago . . . the boom failed at Perdido Pass, and they’ve got big oil coming in heavily. Can you check it out? Oh . . . and we also heard that they’re starting to see oil on the surface at Fort Morgan; they’re deploying their skimmer boats right now. Somebody needs to jump on that, okay?”
She hits the hang-up button on the Blackberry.
“Well, they say they’re gonna put a reporter on it,” says the former Emory philosophy-ecology major. “And that’s encouraging, because they’re usually pretty good at the Register at following up on the leads we give them.”
She falls silent then, as her eyes return to the barges and floating boom.
“This is a battleground, no question,” says Callaway, executive director of the four thousand-member Mobile Baykeeper, Alabama’s largest and most active environmental advocacy group. “We’re working almost around the clock to contend with the spill . . . and my Blackberry is exhausted; it really wants a nap! Come to think of it, I wouldn’t mind one myself. But there’s no time. We’ve got hundreds of volunteers mobilized to fight the spill, all along the Alabama coast, and there isn’t a moment to lose. If we can’t stop this oil, we’re going to lose all our beaches and bays for at least a generation.”
She turns back toward the water then, in order to watch a crew of orange-vested construction workers load yellow boom onto the deck of a borrowed fishing boat. Watching her work the phone and interrogate the boom-loaders, it is at first difficult to believe that this gung-ho environmental activist is also a self-described conservative Republican who strongly insists—along with Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush—that the best form of government is the smallest government . . . and that most social issues are best resolved by the free play of economic forces in an unhindered marketplace.
“My little boy, Coleman, he’s only two and half,” Callaway says quietly, as she describes the social consequences of the spreading oil spill. “But he’s a smart little kid, and he knows what’s going on. The other day, we were driving past the beach at Gulf Shores, and there were all these brown oil patties from the BP spill on the sand. They had a bunch of front-loaders and backhoes out there, too, lots of heavy construction equipment, and they were scooping up all these tar balls and oil-covered sand. And Coleman looked at that and he said, ‘ Mommy, the beach is over, isn’t it? The beach is over.’”
She’s blinking back tears now. “That hurt,” says Casi Callaway. “Oh boy, that really hurt.”
Learning Ecology From Socrates
Spend a few hours patrolling the shoreline with the forty-year-old executive director of Mobile Baykeeper, and you’ll soon discover why environmentalists across the country describe her as “relentless” in her quest to protect the waterways of Alabama.
While zipping back and forth between the coastal beaches and the quieter bays and inlets in her jet-black Toyota Camry Hybrid (the license plate reads: “BAYKPR”) on a rainy Wednesday in late June, Callaway makes one hurried cell-phone call after the next.
She even runs a meeting held by a local conservation group—Save Our Gulf—by firing off suggestions and recommendations via her ever-faithful Blackberry.
For the indefatigable Callaway, who’s been directing the fast-growing, thirteen-year-old environmental group since 1998, running meetings and talking to reporters from behind the wheel of the Hybrid long ago became a way of life.
“I think I’m lucky because I seem to have a knack for dealing with pressure,” says Callaway, who was recently honored with a “Lifetime Celebrates Remarkable Women” citation from the Lifetime Television network. “Somehow, I’m able to keep all these different balls in the air without losing focus—and that’s really helpful on a job like this, where you’re often called upon to handle several different tasks at once.”
The Lifetime Remarkable Women award (First Lady Michelle Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are fellow recipients) saluted Callaway for her unique ability to galvanize public support for environmental reform. Under her leadership during the past twelve years, Mobile Baykeeper has grown from a few hundred members to more than four thousand. During the same period, its staff expanded from a few dozen volunteers to five full-time employees and an active volunteer roster that now tops four figures.
As the $47,000-a-year executive director, Callaway is responsible for setting policy, raising funds, directing membership activities and managing research. She also decides when and where to threaten (or actually file) legal actions against environmental offenders who refuse to toe the line on protecting the more than two hundred rivers, creeks, inlets, bays, and marshland regions that make up the nation’s fourth-largest drainage basin. The vast watershed covers more than a third of the state of Alabama.
In recent years, Callaway and company have enjoyed some headline-grabbing victories. In 2003, they successfully prevented Exxon from building a coastal natural-gas facility that could have threatened the health of millions of fish larvae. In similar fashion, Baykeeper was able to change the development plans for three other offshore natural-gas processing installations. By working out creative compromises with the energy companies involved, Callaway says, Baykeeper made sure they could transport their products without endangering “the marine critters” that live nearby.
Baykeeper also has achieved notable success in making government-run sewer operators clean up the effluent they discharge and in requiring automobile shredders to eliminate toxic mercury releases.
Ask Callaway how she’s managed to pull off so many environmental victories in recent years, and her answer will surprise you.
“You know, I double-majored in philosophy and ecology at Emory,” she’ll tell you with a mischievous grin, as she describes her ongoing struggle to defend the environment. “In many ways, I actually think it was studying Plato that has helped me the most in this job—because Plato teaches you how to argue. After you’ve studied the dialectics of Socrates, you know how to ask the right questions during a debate, so you can make your case in the strongest possible terms. Studying philosophy also taught me how to analyze a situation. I’m not bragging on you . . . but if I have to, I feel like I can take an opponent apart in an argument, thanks to the preparation I got in those philosophy classes.”
But she also notes that her long study of Plato has helped her in another way: it taught her how to look for creative solutions to disputes . . . instead of “seeing everything in black and white, and then becoming rigid and inflexible because of that.”
“In the real world, you have to know how to negotiate compromises,” she points out. “A lot of people are surprised to hear that in the past twelve years, we’ve only filed five or six lawsuits against polluters in South Alabama. We’re willing to go into the courtroom, of course, and if you keep violating the  Clean Water Act and other environmental laws, we will sue you. But in most situations, the courtroom is a last resort.
“Over the years I’ve learned that you can usually get where you need to go by using the tools of persuasion effectively. The key is the ability to think creatively, to think on your feet—and that’s what you learn when you study philosophy.”
A ‘Life-Altering’ Experience
After spending most of her childhood in Mobile, where she hung out for months at a time on the sugar-sand beaches of nearby Gulf Shores, Callaway appeared on the Emory campus in the fall of 1987.
“I was this conservative little girl from South Alabama,” she recalls with a chuckle, “and my father was really horrified when I became interested in ecology and recycling. I’ll never forget the first time I insisted they let me take their trash back to Atlanta so I could recycle it. My daddy said, ‘ Oh, my God—you’re turning into an environmental wacko!’ ”
It was true. Within a couple of years of her arrival at Emory, Casi had found two “truly inspiring mentors,” both of whom were instrumental in her passionate conversion to environmentalism. “I wound up as the coordinator of Earth Day 1990 for college campuses all across the southeastern U.S.,” she recalls, “thanks mainly to the encouragement and support I got from Professor [Larry] Ragsdale and Professor [Donald Phillip] Verene. Professor Ragsdale was a leading figure [and chair] in the Human and Natural Ecology Program on campus, and Dr. Verene taught philosophy. Both of them were ever present and helpful . . . and serving as the Earth Day coordinator under their guidance was a life-altering experience for me.
“That was a very exciting time in my life. I worked for several months on Earth Day in my junior year, and I remember whizzing around campus on this little pink scooter—a Yamaha Razz—and just feeling like there weren’t enough hours in the day to get everything done.”
When Earth Day turned out to be a smash hit on campus, Casi Callaway was hooked on environmental activism. She says she may have been the first Tri-Delt (a member of the famously buttoned-down Delta Delta Delta sorority) to become a “raging ecologist” . . . and that even today, as a conservative Republican who belongs to the socially well-connected Junior League in Mobile, her role as a corporate pollution-fighter sometimes seems hard to explain.
“I’m a conservative, there’s no doubt about that,” she will tell you with a glint of rock-solid conviction in her eye. “But to me a conservative is someone who conserves . . . whether we’re talking about natural resources or political values or the rights and freedoms guaranteed by our Constitution. As far as I’m concerned, working for conservative values and working to protect the environment are one and the same thing.”
After earning her Emory BA in 1991, Callaway would go on to spend six years working as a researcher, canvasser, and fund-raiser for the high-profile Clean Water Action nonprofit in Washington. But she eventually grew weary of Capitol Hill politics. When the opportunity to run what was then the fledgling Mobile Baykeeper organization suddenly opened up in 1998, she jumped at it.
Married for the past five years to Mobile antiques restorer Jarrett Callaway (yes, he took her name a few years ago, mainly because he loved the sound of Coleman Callaway as his son’s name), Callaway says she’s found the perfect mate: “Jarrett is a calm and dedicated craftsman, and an ideal partner for me.”
Adds Jarrett: “What I really like about our marriage is the way it meshes. We’re like a [jigsaw] puzzle that fits.”
But it hasn’t always been easy to balance the demands of parenthood with the demands of protecting Mobile Bay . . . and Callaway readily admits that there are days when she feels strung out and on the edge of exhaustion. Yet she soldiers on, fueled by her conviction that the stakes are too high to give up the fight.
“She’s a warrior, that’s for sure,” says Tammy Herrington, the Baykeeper’s director of education and outreach. “Casi is a bit of a bulldog, and she’s pretty fearless. At the same time, however, she’s incredibly generous and giving of her time, as an activist who’s always trying to make life better for everybody in this region.”
For her part, Callaway likes to point out that her environmental activism starts each day at the family breakfast table.
“In a lot of ways, I feel like I’m doing this for my two-year-old, my baby Coleman,” she says. “I want Coleman to enjoy the same world I knew on the beaches and bays. But to make that happen, we’re going to have to change how we live.
“The old days of wasting our resources are over. The days of reaching for a plastic bag every time you want to put something in the refrigerator are over. We’re all going to have to become environmentalists now, if we hope to preserve the beautiful beaches and bays and rivers that we once took for granted.”