By Greg Barnes
Since 2015, the state Environmental Management Commission has classified an impaired 15-mile stretch of the Cape Fear River near Wilmington as swamp water.
The reclassification remains on the books, even though the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rejected it last summer, saying the state failed to include data about the Cape Fear’s velocity — it is among the fastest-moving rivers in the state — and whether water quality in the river could be improved.
On Wednesday, the Southern Environmental Law Center, on behalf of Waterkeeper Alliance and Cape Fear River Watch, filed a petition with the Environmental Management Commission to have the swamp water designation removed and the stretch of river return to its original tidal waters classification, which is subject to more stringent environmental regulations.
“The change would begin a process to reduce upstream pollution in the state’s largest and most industrialized watershed, pollution that includes an annual swine waste load equivalent to the human waste produced by the entire New York City metro area,” Waterkeeper Alliance said in a news release.
The environmental organizations say the reclassification to swamp water was made despite objections from them, academic experts and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Megan Thorpe, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Quality, said Wednesday the DEQ has advised the Environmental Management Commission that the EPA’s rejection of the swamp water designation “should be the final action on this issue.”
That advice was based, Thorpe said, on environmental concerns, including the presence of endangered species in the stretch of river and ongoing regulatory issues with GenX and other per- and polyfluorinated compounds, known as PFAS.
Environmentalists contend that the EPA’s decision gives the state no choice but to remove the swamp water designation, which could lead to increased acidity and lower levels of dissolved oxygen, making it more difficult for fish and other aquatic wildlife to survive.
“Despite this,” the petition reads, “the disapproved supplemental swamp waters classification remains in North Carolina’s Administrative Code, much to the dismay of citizens, local representatives, and state representatives along the lower Cape Fear who do not like the perception that their river is a ‘swamp’ and who are concerned that such a misrepresentation of the river could threaten tourism in the area and recreational use of the river.”
The environmental groups say the 15-mile stretch of the Cape Fear — from Toomer’s Creek to near Lilliput Creek and Snow’s Cut — is a primary nursery area that provides critical habitat for endangered Atlantic sturgeon. Lilliput Creek enters the Cape Fear about 15 miles downstream of Wilmington.
According to the petition, the stretch has been listed as impaired since 1998, largely because of its low levels of dissolved oxygen. Since then, the petition says, the stretch has been burdened by additional problems, including copper, nickel, and increased acidity.
The environmental groups contend that industrial-scale hog and poultry farms, which are concentrated in areas above the stretch, are at least partly to blame for the low levels of dissolved oxygen. Environmentalists say the state failed to subject those farms to “meaningful scrutiny” when they made the swamp water designation.
“The 5 million hogs and 21 million turkeys in the Cape Fear basin have polluted the water so badly, our river is at risk of choking to death,” Kemp Burdette, Cape Fear Riverkeeper, said in the news release. “Reclassifying it as a swamp isn’t the answer; imposing pollution limits, as required by law, is.”
The Lower Cape Fear River Program, made up of governments and businesses along the Cape Fear, asked for the reclassification to swamp water in 2014. The organization claimed in its request that the reclassification was warranted because lower dissolved oxygen levels in the stretch occur naturally.
Bridget Munger, a spokeswoman for DEQ, told the Wilmington Star-News last year that the action began under former Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration. Munger said then that she expected the EPA would have concerns about the reclassification and that DEQ planned to recommend that the Environmental Management Commission re-evaluate its reclassification, especially in light of GenX and related fluorinated compounds being discovered in the river and hundreds of private drinking wells.
GenX is a suspected carcinogen manufactured by DuPont, and now Chemours, at a plant near the border of Bladen and Cumberland counties. The chemical, used to make Teflon and other nonstick and water-resistant products, had been discharged into the river at least since the early 1980s. In 2017, DEQ ordered Chemours to stop its release.
The health effects of GenX in humans is unclear. The chemical has been found in animal tests to cause liver, pancreas and testicular cancer, as well as have negative effects on the liver and on blood.