A bald cypress tree rises from the Cape Fear River near Tar Heel. Photo: Andrew Kornylak


A River Worth the Fight: Visualizing a Healthy, Connected and Respected Cape Fear

by Kemp Burdette, Cape Fear Riverkeeper Category:

The Cape Fear River is North Carolina’s largest and most diverse river, the only river in the state to empty directly into the Atlantic Ocean, and the drinking water supply for one in five North Carolinians. For the river and the people who live along it 2016 was marked with both major victories and ongoing challenges. Already in 2017, many river guardians are working hard to secure more of the former, and mitigate more of the latter.

I know the following to be true, as do conservation philanthropist Louis Bacon and The Orton Foundation: this river is worth the fight. An introduction to its specific geography, history and romance can be found in Our State’s story of my eight-day 203-mile paddle from source to mouth. We hope the photos of our trip, maps and videos will inspire you as you learn about its threats and visualize a healthy future.


Bridge at Lilington, NC, over the Cape Fear River. Photo: Andrew Kornylak

Coal Ash Clean Up
North Carolina, home of the nation’s largest electric utility, Duke Energy, took center stage in the national fight to clean up toxic coal ash, the legacy of decades of burning coal with little regard for ensuring that the waste product of this dirty fuel was properly handled and disposed of. In the Cape Fear Basin, like hundreds of others across the US, coal ash contamination threatens ground and surface water and poses an immediate threat to people who live nearby. The dams that hold coal ash slurry in precarious containment ponds are in poor condition, and are usually adjacent to rivers.

Cape Fear River Watch, with our partners Waterkeeper Alliance and Sierra Club, represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, and through funding provided in part by The Orton Foundation took action to force Duke to clean up seven coal ash ponds at two sites on the Cape Fear, the Cape Fear Plant in Chatham county and the LV Sutton Plant in New Hanover County. Our legal action against Duke has led to: 1. agreements that the company clean up both sites; 2. the construction of a new water supply for a community whose drinking water was threatened by contaminated groundwater; and 3. the creation of a conservation fund established to support conservation projects in the impacted area near the LV Sutton plant.

Duke Energy's L.V. Sutton Steam Plant

Duke Energy’s L.V. Sutton Steam Plant

Today, we’re seeing good progress: coal ash at the LV Sutton site is being dried out and moved to lined and capped storage facilities away from waterways, and wastewater from these activities is being treated. The coal burning boilers at both sites have been demolished and pollution from coal has been permanently stopped in the Cape Fear Basin. Yet, we remind ourselves that while the Cape Fear Basin has a coal free-future in store, other sites in North Carolina need similar cleanup plans in place to protect surface and ground water, and the people who depend on that water to live.

After the End of Titan America, Envisioning a Sustainable Corridor
2016 saw the end of one hard fought battle for environmental protection of the Cape Fear Region. After an eight-year attempts to build what would have been nation’s largest coastal cement plant and adjacent limestone strip mine, Greek-owned Titan Cement finally conceded defeat and officially scrapped plans to build along the banks of the Northeast Cape Fear River. The project would have been a disaster for the environment, public health and the region’s ground water aquifer. Precipitating this outcome were the efforts of a strong coalition of environmental organizations (including CFRW) in the form of the Stop Titan Action Network, which rallied nearly 20,000 local citizens, hundreds of businesses, and dozens of doctors and medical professionals to sign a Stop Titan petition.

Importantly, the fight against Titan, supported by The Orton Foundation, has exposed a major problem in the way heavy industrial development is conducted in the region. The Titan deal was conducted behind closed doors, with no public input or comment. The inevitable impacts of the project were kept largely secret; attempts by citizens to voice concerns were initially ignored. The process highlighted the critical need for industrial planning and zoning improvements, namely the addition of a Special Use Permit (SUP) for heavy industry.

Efforts to get an SUP in place are underway, one that not only discourages the few dirtiest industries that would threaten the future of the region, but also encourages the kind of industry the region wants and needs and includes the public in the decision making process. I would encourage all readers to understand that New Hanover County Planning Board’s recent recommendation will allow some intensive manufacturing uses currently categorized as heavy industry to be declassified to a less intensive category, thus permitted to zone in closer proximity to residential neighborhoods and retail establishments. Learn more here.

The Devastation of Industrial Farming Waste and Hurricane Matthew
The Cape Fear River Basin boasts many superlatives. Its size and diversity are unmatched in North Carolina. The oldest living trees east of the Rocky Mountains are found within its swamps. Numerous endangered and special species call the watershed home. The river cuts through the heart of North Carolina and is a centerpiece in the state’s history and culture.

However, the Cape Fear Basin tops another, not so desirable list: home to the highest concentration of factory farms on planet Earth, industrial scale agriculture referred to as concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs for short. The impacts from the concentrated waste of millions of animals is wreaking havoc on the river.

A Flooded CAFO after Hurricane Matthew. Photo: Rick Dove, Waterkeeper Alliance

A Flooded CAFO after Hurricane Matthew. Photo: Rick Dove, Waterkeeper Alliance

For decades, the American farm has been dying a slow death, while industrial meat production has risen to dominate the way our country eats. True family farms are rare in North Carolina these days, replaced by enormous facilities where animals are tightly packed indoors, frequently caged or crated, their lives manipulated to encourage growth at rates that far exceed what is natural. The waste from these animals is sprayed or spread on the landscape in concentrations and amounts that far exceed the landscape’s ability to accept them, and runoff of animal waste into streams and rivers is a common and extremely serious problem. The people who live near these facilities, frequently people of color, are subjected to conditions that most Americans would not believe existed in our country. The stench from CAFOs settles on the area around them. The spray of feces and urine drifts across property lines as the wind blows. Streams are so full of bacteria that they resemble open sewers. Disease is rampant in CAFOs and strong scientific evidence shows that CAFOs are responsible for the growth of antibiotic resistant bacteria. The nutrient load from the waves of runoff create blooms of toxic blue green algae that threatens the water supply of hundreds of thousands of people living in the Cape Fear Basin.

Given the size and scope of the problem, it has been especially frustrating that the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (NCDEQ) under former Governor Pat McCrory had been so willing to turn a blind eye to the rampant dumping of animal waste by CAFO operators. Reports of illegal pollution from Riverkeepers across the state were largely ignored by NCDEQ. The industry’s influence in the NC General Assembly is clear as well, and laws that protect the industry at the expense of people across North Carolina have become commonplace.

The consequences of willful inaction by state regulators has never been more apparent than in October of 2016, when historic flooding from Hurricane Matthew inundated eastern North Carolina with floodwaters, in many cases exceeding all time high water marks. North Carolina Riverkeepers took to the skies before and following Hurricane Matthew. Before the storm, as well as before Tropical Storm Hermine just a month before, we documented dozens of farms illegally spraying waste immediately prior to tropical rain events. Following Hurricane Matthew we recorded farms and waste lagoons covered by floodwaters. Dead animals filled these barns and raw untreated animal waste flowed freely into the state’s waterways. Riverkeepers documented illegal spraying and inundated barns and lagoons and reported them, including high resolution photographs, GPS coordinates, and detailed written reports to the NCDEQ. In most cases we were ignored, and in some we were actually criticized by the very agency responsible for protecting the state’s rivers.

The fight against CAFOs is a classic David vs. Goliath story; it is long and complex. The industry has an army of lobbyists and near unlimited resources at their disposal. They are putting the small farmer out of business. They have spent millions of dollars on phony advertising campaigns that attempt to portray CAFOs as Green Acre-esque family farms, when in reality they are factories where meat and waste are produced at scales never before seen.

Riverkeepers across North Carolina are fighting on several fronts: standing up for the small farmer, documenting illegal pollution, highlighting the impacts of that pollution on people and the environment, underscoring the failure of NCDEQ to do its job and regulate the industry, revealing that elected officials have turned their back on the people of North Carolina in favor of campaign contributions from the CAFO industry, and showing the public the truth about factory farms.

We are thankful to Mr. Bacon and The Orton Foundation for being such long-time partners in this must-win battle.

Bringing Back a Healthy Fishery
The Cape Fear was once home to one of the east coast’s most prolific fisheries. Migratory fish such as striped bass, Atlantic and shortnose sturgeon, American and hickory shad, and river herring filled the river during their annual spawning runs from the ocean and estuary upstream to the fall line, a trip that could be as long as 200 miles. A century ago, these numbers began to decline, largely because of three dams built between Wilmington and Fayetteville to make the river more consistent and navigable for barge traffic between the two cities. Migratory fish populations began a steady decline and fell as low as ten percent of their historic levels.

Buckhorn Dam. Photo: Andrew Kornylak

Buckhorn Dam. Photo: Andrew Kornylak

Fortunately for these fish, a comeback is in the works. Cape Fear River Watch, again with support from The Orton Foundation, is spearheading efforts to restore these fish populations by building fish passage, removing dams where possible, improving water quality, and building a connection between communities along the river and the fishery. Our fish-tagging program is helping biologists understand our migratory fish. We have built spawning habitat and are working with federal and state agencies to improve the fish passage structure at Lock and Dam #1. We are taking giant steps forward in our work to bring back the Cape Fear River migratory fish to accelerate the positive impact a healthy fishery will have on our region’s environment, economy, and recreation opportunities.

Connecting People to the River
As previously mentioned, I recently completed a lifelong “bucket list” trip. I paddled the length of the Cape Fear, the river I was born along, from beginning to end. The 203 mile, eight day journey from the center of the state to the sea was eye opening in countless ways. Perhaps the most striking observation I made was that the Cape Fear River, the largest in the state, was surprisingly under-used and under-enjoyed by North Carolinians. In fact, for the first three days of the trip I didn’t see a soul except my companions. After that, sightings of people on the water fishing, paddling, camping were rare. In a way, our small group enjoyed the solitude. The river was quiet and beautiful, with only occasional interruptions of small groups of houses, or bridges, and occasionally a park or boat ramp.

But as I reflected on the trip, I remembered that the river belongs to the people of North Carolina even if they have all but forgotten it. I realized that the only way North Carolinians are going to come to love and care for the river the way that I do is to get to know it. And that meants they have to get out on and in it. Many North Carolinians already drink the river but they also need to swim, play and catch fish in it. They need to paddle it and see the amazing wildlife along its banks. They need to watch the sun rise and set from a tent pitched along its banks.

Part of the reason this is difficult is because there is little public access along the river – and even less awareness about which areas are open and safe for public recreation. Unlike the rivers of the west that frequently run through vast tracts of national parks, forest, or monument lands, the banks of the Cape Fear are mostly held by private land owners. There are some public lands but they are a hodgepodge of federal, state, county, and city lands that are parks, recreation areas, boat ramps, game-lands, state forests, or simply land held by the government with no explicit purpose. There are stretches of river in between that are too long for a family to paddle at a normal family pace. Through my job as the Riverkeeper I was fortunate to know many folks along the riverwho gladly offered for our small group to camp (or sometimes, when we were very lucky, to stay in a cabin) along our route.

That isn’t an option for most North Carolinians.

I returned from my trip with a new goal crystalized: to make the Cape Fear River accessible to all North Carolinians. First, land that is open for public use needs to be mapped and documented to promote areas of access for the public. Allowable uses need to be defined and hopefully expanded. Next, large gaps between these public spaces need to analyzed and addressed to improve river access.

The end of the journey: 200 miles to the mouth of the Cape Fear River. Kemp Burdette at right. Photo: Andrew Kornylak

The end of the 200-mile journey to the mouth of the Cape Fear. Right: Kemp Burdette. Photo: Andrew Kornylak

The Cape Fear River is our river. It’s beautiful and diverse and magical. Despite threats and challenges, the Cape Fear should be loved, understood, experienced – and respected by all North Carolinians. When that happens you can be sure that the river will be protected and improved for generations to come.

Kemp Burdette is the Cape Fear Riverkeeper and Executive Director of Cape Fear River Watch where he works to protect and improve the water quality of the Lower Cape Fear River.