Climate change and pollution jeopardize Cape Fear, say advocates

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Aerial view of part of the Cape Fear River. Photo: Cape Fear River Watch

WILMINGTON – The Cape Fear River is unprecedented in many ways.

It is the only major river in North Carolina that empties directly into the Atlantic Ocean. It is the largest river basin in the state where 6,500 miles of waterways wind through 26 counties and 113 municipalities.

The river is also the most industrialized river in North Carolina. Its shores are dotted with power plants, manufacturing plants, sewage treatment plants, landfills, paper mills and industrial agriculture.

“The Cape Fear River Basin has more pig farms than any other watershed on earth,” said Cape Fear River Guardian Kemp Burdette.

speaking to Cape Fear River WatchAt the first State of the River Forum on Wednesday, Burdette spoke about a spectacular river crucial to an array of fish species, a river that is the source of raw drinking water for tens of thousands of North Carolinas.

But the river, he said, is already fragile, enduring the impacts of climate change and rising sea levels, polluted by man-made chemicals, stormwater runoff and the runoff of waste from industrial farms.

Contamination from concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, remains one of the largest and most persistent issues affecting water quality in the river, Burdette said.

“It’s a very difficult and slow fight and the victories are small and the progress is incremental,” he told the more than 100 people in attendance at the forum.

Although there have been takeovers, factory pig farms remain prevalent in the river basin.

Most of these farms are concentrated in Sampson and Duplin counties, areas that have seen a surge in large poultry farms in recent years.

North Carolina has become the top producer of poultry, a largely unregulated industry.

“We have to ban new poultry facilities because we don’t even know what the impacts are,” Burdette said.

He was among a number of speakers at this year’s forum held on the Cape Fear Community College campus in downtown Wilmington, an area adorned with scenic river views about 26 miles away. upstream of the Atlantic Ocean, which is increasing due to climate change.

“By 2050, our watershed and this downtown will be very different from what it is today,” Burdette said.

He was referring to sea level rise projections for the region, the latest of which were released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in February.

Water Street, which runs along the Cape Fear River in downtown Wilmington, is flooded during a past weather event. Photo: Withers Ravenel

The administration projects that sea level rise here will reach 2 feet between 2060 and 2080.

“We know that (sea level rise) is accelerating,” said Roger Shew, Cape Fear River Watch board member and geologist and lecturer in earth and ocean sciences at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. “It keeps growing. We need to know and plan what is happening.

During his speech, Shew displayed on two large projection screens photographs of the flooded parking lot and the road leading to Battleship North Carolina, the World War II memorial nestled on the west bank of the river across from downtown. city ​​of Wilmington.

The photographs were taken on January 3, when the high tide pushed the waters of the river to its banks where the flood was over 2 feet deep. It was the 10e the highest flood event recorded in the region.

Shew said considering cumulative impacts on the river — whether it’s the deepening of the shipping channel between the river’s mouth and Wilmington Harbor or shoreline development — is important to protect River.

The river is home to a variety of valuable ecosystem services, including critical coastal and riverine habitats, commercial and recreational fisheries resources, recreational resources, and a rich historical and cultural heritage.

Anadromous fish, or those born in freshwater, migrate to the sea, then return to freshwater to spawn, ending up in the waters of the river. These species include both the endangered Atlantic and shortnose sturgeon and striped bass.

Dawn York, Cape Fear River Partnership Coordinator and coastal scientist, said NOAA officials said the Cape Fear River is the only one with anadromous fish that has a series of locks and dams fragmenting the river, limiting the extent of migration of these fish.

The partnership spearheaded a project about 10 years ago to build rock arch rapids at Lock and Dam No. 1, about 39 miles above Wilmington.

The rapids were modified in 2021. York said the partnership hopes to build similar features at Locks and Dams Nos 2 and 3.

The Cape Fear also provides storm buffer and flood protection. The river marshes are one of the most productive areas in the world, Shew said.

But as the salinity increases in the river with the rising sea, the organic soils and peat will decompose, a phenomenon that will equate to the loss of marshes.

As the salt water moves up the river, man-made chemicals and runoff from large factory farms upstream seep into the watershed.

North Carolina-based researchers have found high levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl, or PFAS, in striped bass and river alligators.

PFAS are a group of man-made chemicals used in many consumer products, including everything from non-stick cookware, fast food wrappers and makeup to flame retardants.

Five years ago, residents of the Cape Fear area learned that Chemours Co.’s Fayetteville Works facility upriver in Bladen County had been releasing PFAS, including GenX, directly into their drinking water source since 1980.

A consent order, the result of a lawsuit filed by the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality and Cape Fear River Watch against the DuPont spin-off, requires Chemours to reduce the amount of PFAS released from the plant in the river, the air and the ground. 99%.

The Cape Fear River Watch chart shows utilities and other businesses along the Cape Fear River.

In a video address shown at the start of Wednesday’s forum, North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein said tackling PFAS contamination is one of his top priorities.

“These companies line their pockets at the expense of people’s health,” he said.

In October 2020, Stein filed a lawsuit in Cumberland County Superior Court against DuPont and a dozen other companies, including Chemours, alleging the companies knew the chemicals posed threats to human health and of the environment.

“They need to clean up the mess they made in the Cape Fear River Basin,” he said. “As my investigation continues, I may pursue additional legal action. Every North Carolina has the right to clean water. It’s that simple.”

Deborah Dicks Maxwell, president of the NAACP and board member of Cape Fear River Watch, grew up along the banks of the river in downtown Wilmington.

She drank water from the river for most of her life. She was baptized in its waters.

“I have long had a healthy respect and love for the river,” she said. “It’s the lifeline of this community because water is life. Are we listening to what we need to do? Are we really listening? Do you wish to preserve what is here? As you wish. Please pay attention to what is happening.

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