A beautiful sunset (and dusk) view across the Cape Fear River of the USS North Carolina from the Riverwalk in downtown Wilmington.

Derb Carter: Supporting a New Vision for the Cape Fear Region

by Derb Carter Category:

Named for the treacherous shoals at its mouth that wrecked many ships, the Cape Fear River drains much of eastern North Carolina, entering the Atlantic Ocean below the historic port of Wilmington. Today, in the face of serious environmental challenges, there is an emerging consensus in the lower Cape Fear region around Wilmington that the best way forward is to protect and capitalize on its tremendous cultural and natural riches: its waterways and wetlands, its beaches and offshore waters, and the river that defines this area. In recent years, Wilmington itself has steadily redeveloped its waterfront with plazas, shops, restaurants, and public spaces—turning the city to embrace the river. With support from Louis Bacon’s Orton Foundation, the Southern Environmental Law Center is using its legal skills to help local citizen groups fulfill this vision for the region’s future.

One of the challenges facing the Cape Fear region—and coastal communities all along the south Atlantic—is the Department of the Interior’s proposal to open the waters offshore to oil and gas drilling. The coastal communities that would bear the brunt of this move have risen as one with a resounding no. Wilmington has joined Charleston, Savannah, and over 100 other coastal localities that have determined that the risks of offshore drilling and its impacts on their environment and way of life would outweigh any benefits. All have passed no-drill resolutions, demanding that the federal government not include the south Atlantic in the next offshore leasing plan.

Another challenge is water pollution. The Cape Fear River drains an area with the highest density of swine and poultry concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, in the world. These CAFOs hold millions of hogs, chickens, and turkeys and produce enormous amounts of nutrient-laden waste. The operations are allowed to dispose of the waste by spraying or spreading it on agricultural fields, where it can run off into streams and eventually the river.

Excessive nutrient pollution from animal waste runoff stimulates growth of algae, which in turn decays and consumes the oxygen in the water, crippling its ability to sustain fish and fisheries. The lower Cape Fear River at Wilmington now regularly violates the minimum oxygen level needed to protect fish and other aquatic wildlife. If state officials get their way, it will get worse. SELC and our local partners are working to block a proposal by state environmental regulators to change the classification of the river to allow lower oxygen levels and allow pollution, rather than address the source of the pollution.

Citizens are rising to respond to these environmental challenges. Just consider their response to Titan Cement’s proposal to construct one of the largest cement kilns in the United States on the north edge of the Wilmington area. Hundreds of local residents turned out at a public hearing to oppose an air pollution permit requested for the Titan plant, which would emit tons of toxic pollutants as the ingredients for making the cement are cooked in an industrial kiln.

Titan’s proposal has sparked a public discussion on the future of the region: whether to allow high-polluting industry or to continue to encourage growth in the region’s high-tech, green, recreation, and film industries. SELC is representing several local organizations committed to advancing this cleaner option. After eight years of opposing the Titan project, nothing has been built.

The Orton Foundation has supported SELC since 2001 as well as other conservation nonprofits throughout the region that focus on protecting threatened landscapes, habitats and water bodies. In addition, the Foundation supports educational and community programs that work to amplify the history and culture of the area. Through this work, Mr. Bacon is quietly, effectively, and by example leading and contributing to the emerging vision for a region that is building its future on its history, its culture, and its environment, and that is carefully deciding what is consistent and contrary to that vision. SELC is proud to be a part of this effort.

Derb Carter is director of the North Carolina Office of the Southern Environmental Law Center, which uses the power of the law to defend clean water and healthy air; to preserve the special character of landscapes and communities; and to ensure the protection of forests, rivers, coasts, and wetlands throughout the Southeast. He has received such honors as North Carolina Conservationist of the Year and the National Wetlands Award.