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Kemp Burdette proudly calls himself a River Rat. He says he has known the Cape Fear River his entire life, even before he was born. “My mom drank Cape Fear water when I was in her womb,” he says. “I grew up on the River. As far back as I can remember, I spent a lot of time here -- paddling, fishing and camping with my family.”
Now, as the Cape Fear Riverkeeper for more than a decade, Burdette is even more fiercely protective of the 9324 square mile basin and ready to stand up against anything that endangers it. “I try to speak because the river can’t speak for itself,” he says. “I use facts, science and the law to do that.”
There are more factory farms in the Cape Fear River Basin than anywhere else on the planet. Two counties -- Duplin and Sampson -- are the number one and two hog producing counties in the United States. Add in the rapidly increasing number of poultry farms and you have catastrophic effects on the river and the wildlife.
Burdette is one of 14 North Carolina riverkeepers, the most of any state. Together they make up Waterkeepers Carolina (WKC), a group committed to environmental justice and equity for all people and communities in the collective watersheds. They are as follows:
Andy Hill - Watauga Riverkeeper
Hartwell Carson - French Broad Riverkeeper
The Riverkeepers believe no group of people should bear a disproportionate share of negative environmental consequences, nor should they have less access to beneficial environmental goods. Because they speak for the North Carolina rivers, the Riverkeepers spend almost as much time in environmental strategy sessions, court and administrative hearings and leading protests as they spend on the water itself because the rivers are under sustained and increasing threat.
Regardless of their locations, all of the riverkeepers see significant negative impacts on water quality. The state’s rapid population growth and the tremendous clout of the industrial farming industry have combined to devastating effect on environmental and water quality. As a result, their missions to protect and improve the environmental integrity of North Carolina’s waterways are more pressing than ever.
Lax regulations and state and local cutbacks in environmental monitoring and enforcement mean little or no oversight for businesses and others that pollute or skirt regulations. In those cases, the riverkeepers act as a kind of environmental enforcement patrol.
Their top priorities include limiting nutrient and bacterial pollution from wastewater treatment plants and large-scale agricultural operations and cleaning up coal ash and inactive hazardous waste sites. They use a variety of testing measures and aerial surveys to monitor watershed water quality, safeguard drinking water supplies and to sustain recreational water resources.
But they also educate others about the vital role the rivers play in their own lives so that they too will speak for the rivers. “People need to stand up for their clean water and air and demand that our elected officials and our regulatory agencies do the same,” says Burdette.
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