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“I’ve had a healthy respect and love for the river for a long time. It is 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? It is up to you. Please take heed to what is going on.”
These words from Deborah Dicks-Maxwell, President of the NC NAACP kicked off Wilmington, NC’s, first-of-its-kind, half-day State of the River Forum. On June 1, over 200 southeastern North Carolina residents attended this inaugural event hosted by Cape Fear River Watch (CFRW). CFRW’s aim was to gather locals, researchers, elected officials, farmers, fisherfolk, and nonprofit leaders to learn from experts about the health and environmental issues impacting the region and ways that they can work together on realistic solutions.
Following opening comments by Dicks-Maxwell and NC Attorney General Josh Stein, Riverkeeper Kemp Burdette painted the picture of a unique and vitally important ecosystem that is pained by a host of issues.
The Cape Fear River Basin is the largest in North Carolina with 6,500 miles of navigable waterways traversing 26 counties and 113 municipalities and home to the most biodiversity on the eastern seaboard north of Florida also the state’s most industrialized river. In fact, in 2018 American Rivers listed the Cape Fear as one of the top 10 most endangered rivers in America.
The river banks are lined with wastewater treatment plants, industrial agriculture operations, power plants, landfills, high density development, and manufacturing plants.
“The Cape Fear River basin has more hog farms than any other watershed on earth,” said Burdette, speaking about the impacts of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) on water quality and the health and well-being of rural communities. “It is a very difficult and slow fight [against pollution from CAFOs] and the wins are small and the progress is incremental.”
Roger Shew, Lecturer of Geology at UNC Wilmington, spoke about lower estuary issues including sea level rise, channel deepening for port expansion, and riverside development. He said, “We know (sea level rise) is accelerating. It keeps rising. We need to know and plan for what’s going on.”
Cape Fear River Partnership Coordinator Dawn York explained that the Cape Fear River is the only North Carolina river in which the migration of anadromous fish for spawning purposes is hindered by a series of locks and dams, causing a shocking 90% decline in the population over the past 100 years. Ten years ago the partnership constructed a series of rock arch rapids at lock and dam No. 1 to increase the migration range of anadromous fish on the Cape Fear; the rapids were modified in 2021 with the aim of allowing even more fish to make it upstream.
Executive Director of Cape Fear River Watch Dana Sargent said that PFAS contamination is one of the biggest challenges facing the river. These forever chemicals pose a significant threat to peoples’ health and the environment. In 2017, scientists discovered that Chemours and its predecessor in name DuPont had been discharging a host of PFAS chemicals directly into the Cape Fear River for 40 years.
All those living downstream of the Chemours plant, currently about 500,000 people, unknowingly drank those toxic chemicals out of their tap for years, and some of them for their entire lives. Cape Fear River Watch brought a lawsuit against both Chemours and the NC Department of Environmental Quality resulting in the 2019 consent order requiring Chemours to reduce their discharge of PFAS into the river, air, and ground by 99 percent.
Video recordings of the event will be available soon. Visit capefearriverwatch.org to learn more about CFRW’s activities and how to follow along or get involved.
-- Audrey Dunn
**Cover photo: US Army Corp of Engineers