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Sailor Turned Sleuth Investigating Polluters in Potomac River

Brent Walls has dedicated his life to stopping water pollution in Western Maryland. He’s worked for the last 11 years as the Upper Potomac Riverkeeper, an advocate with a nonprofit organization, the Potomac Riverkeeper Network.

Now 48 years old, his life turned in this direction because of a moment of clarity he experienced when he was 21. He recalled that was serving in the U.S. Navy aboard the aircraft carrier, the U.S.S.  Constellation. During his first cruise in the Pacific Ocean, he witnessed a routine procedure.

“Twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening, the boat will slow down and a bell will ring, and everyone on that ship will gather their trash and take it to the back of the boat and throw it over,” Walls recalled.  “I did this several times, and I remember one time, in particular:  It was a sunset, nothing but open ocean, you see the glow of the sun in the background, and the boat slowed down and you see this miles and miles of floating, huge paper garbage bags, that we have just unloaded into the ocean. And that just kind of made me sick. It really did.”  

He knew there had to be a better way.   And so, Walls transformed himself into not only a clean water warrior, but a high-tech sleuth who works every day to document pollution with digital photos and video, and report it to the authorities.


His tools include water quality monitoring kits, gauges to measure acidity and heat; his kayak, which he uses to patrol the Upper Potomac;  and this James Bond-like gadget he pulls out of a storage compartment on the back of his motorcycle.

Sound of humming and whirling.

This is drone -- like a flying robot the size of a football, with four helicopter rotors and a video camera eye. Walls directs it to fly over the site of a now-closed paper mill in Luke, Maryland. The plant operated on the banks of the Upper Potomac River for more than a century before the Verso Corporation shut it down last June. 

“So the drone has been an insanely great tool to be able to fly,” Walls said. “Right now, I’m talking to you, and the drone is up there hovering, at my beck and command, whenever I need it. I can take photos, I can take video. It’s such high quality that I can blow up those images to get really good information.”

Last year, he heard a tip from a fishing guide that a goopy black toxic waste product called “black liquor” – a byproduct of the papermaking process -- had been seeping into the Potomac near the site of the paper mill.  Walls investigated with his cameras and equipment, discovered that the liquid had been leaking from a mill storage tank, and worked with the Environmental Integrity Project to sue the company for violating hazardous waste management laws.

His legal action inspired both the Maryland Department of the Environment and the state’s Attorney General to file their own federal lawsuit against the company, demanding an end to the pollution.

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh praised Brent Walls’ detective work as having a big impact on helping to clean up the Potomac River.

“It’s been hugely helpful,” Frosh said. “I mean, first the Potomac Riverkeepers identified the issue.  I don’t think the Department of the Environment was aware of it until they did.  And they subsequently documented it, and have continued to do that, and it’s been extraordinarily helpful.”

Just last month, on July 16, Walls took a second legal action. It was a letter of intent to sue a nearby coal storage facility that served the paper mill and was allowing coal waste contaminants to run off with stormwater into the Upper Potomac River.

Maryland’s Secretary of the Environment, Ben Grumbles, said his agency and colleagues in West Virginia are now actively investigating the leakage from the coal site owned D. & L. Coal Company of Keyser, W.V., including to see if it is tainting the drinking water supplies of people downstream.

“We are looking into this,” Grumbles said.  “Just today, I was talking to the Secretary of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection about the D. & L. site, and we are going to be gathering more facts on that. Obviously, we have concerns about any type of pollutant that is in source water that could be used for drinking water, whether it’s the town of Luke or any other community that depends on the health of the Potomac River.”

Brent Walls may no longer serve in the military. But his war for clean water marches on.


Photo of Upper Potomac Riverkeeper Brent Walls by Tom Pelton

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.