River Guardians

In the face of growing environmental threats and porous regulations, grassroots groups have taken it upon themselves to protect waterways in the southeastern U.S.—and elsewhere around the world.

On a crisp, clear October morning, I meet Kemp Burdette at a private airfield 4 miles from downtown Wilmington, North Carolina. Loaded down with binoculars and camera equipment, he apologizes for running late. We climb into a four-seat Cessna, and lift off so smoothly, I realize we’re airborne only when I see the plane’s shadow on the ground below.

“I’ve done this a few times before,” the pilot says wryly as I gaze down at the aqua blue waters of the Cape Fear River, which meanders through downtown Wilmington before cutting S-curves through dense green forest.

From the confluence of the Deep and Haw rivers to Bald Head Island where it empties into the Atlantic Ocean, the Cape Fear is a work of art—some 200 miles of foaming rapids and tranquil eddies, flowing past rock gardens and 100-foot bluffs.

The lower river basin is among the most biodiverse places on the Eastern Seaboard, with a heady mix of common, endemic, rare, threatened, and endangered species. Among them are the Cape Fear shiner (Notropis mekistocholas), Atlantic and short-nose sturgeons (Acipenser oxyrhynchus oxyrhynchus and Acipenser brevirostrum), the nomadic West Indian manatee (Trichechus manatus), and five of the world’s seven species of sea turtle.

The river is also the source of drinking water for nearly 500,000 people from Greensboro to Fort Bragg to Wilmington, as well as a main artery of North Carolina’s history, identity, and heritage. As the Cape Fear Riverkeeper for the past 15 years, Burdette directs the Cape Fear Riverwatch, a nonprofit advocacy group that works to protect the river from its source to the sea.

Surveying the riverscape from a bird’s vantage, Burdette is in his element. He flies regularly to monitor the many industries that line the river’s banks, from coal-fired power plants to chemical factories. Today, Burdette wants to show me how wood pellet processing facilities and industrial animal farms affect the watershed, as well as the people and wildlife that live there.

The plane banks away from the water and toward the interior of four of the counties that make up the river’s lower basin: New Hanover, Sampson, Duplin, and Pender. From 2,000 feet up, we spot uniform rows of elongated white barns with steel roofs, adjacent to Olympic pool-sized lagoons of hot pink waste. These are industrial hog farms, their unlucky charges jammed into the barns by the thousands. The Cape Fear basin hosts more of these facilities than any other watershed on Earth.

But the poultry industry is catching up quickly. Burdette points out the long barns of a chicken farm, identifying it by its lack of lagoons and large piles of dry litter—a mixture of poop, spilled feed, feathers, and bedding material.

Some 99 percent of farm animals in the U.S. are raised in industrial facilities like these, according to the Sentience Institute, a nonprofit, interdisciplinary advocacy group. In addition to supplying a good chunk of the nation’s meat, these farms generate massive amounts of waste, which contains ammonia and other nitrogen compounds, phosphorus, heavy metals, and pathogens. When the waste and its byproducts find their way into the Cape Fear, they cause algal blooms that reduce oxygen levels and present a regular threat to both fresh and marine ecosystem, as well as human health.

But North Carolina state laws and regulations governing the industry are few and weak. Some even protect the industries outright by allowing poultry farms to operate without a general agricultural permit and making it virtually impossible to sue hog farms for nuisance damages. Burdette monitors these practices closely to make sure companies comply with the environmental protections that do exist, and continues to push for more to rein it in.

Snapping pictures and scribbling furiously in his notebook, Burdette documents a number of violations in just the two hours we are in the air: liquid hog waste being sprayed onto over-saturated fields, which will likely contaminate groundwater, streams, and ultimately the river; huge piles of uncovered chicken litter perched on a hill near the edge of one property, where rain could send the waste flowing into nearby waterways.

“The rule is, you can’t leave dry litter uncovered for more than 15 days,” Burdette says. “We’ve seen piles left uncovered for months and months, so they totally disregard those rules. But even those tarps don’t really stop anything. It’s like putting a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound.”

Later, back on the ground, Burdette collects water samples from streams and tributaries near the farms. Tests reveal that they contain high levels of bacteria and antibiotics, so he sends the results and date-stamped flyover pictures with GPS coordinates to the state Department of Environmental Quality. The goal is to press the agency to conduct its own investigations and issue notices of violation for infractions. If they do not, Riverwatch files a complaint.

Identifying sources of pollution, suing polluters, and holding state and federal agencies accountable for enforcing laws that protect water quality is always time-consuming, often frustrating, and too often thankless. But people, animals, and plants all depend on a clean Cape Fear—for drinking water, habitat, recreation, and food. “I try to speak for the river because the river can’t speak for itself,” Burdette says. “And I use facts, science, and the law to do that.”

The Riverkeeper movement started in the mid-1960s in New York, when a mostly blue-collar group of commercial and recreational fishers banded together to save the Hudson River. In 1962, a power company called Consolidated Edison had received approval from the Federal Power Commission to build the country’s largest pumped-storage hydroelectric plant on the Hudson. The river was struggling: A billion and a half gallons of raw sewage already entered the Hudson each day, turning a riparian area once rich with amphibians, birds, waterfowl, butterflies, and fish like sturgeon and shad into a dead zone. Frustrated, the fishers formed the Hudson River Fishermen’s Association, an environmental watchdog and enforcement group, and joined a lawsuit to appeal the commission’s decision in 1965. The lawsuit was settled 15 years later with Consolidated Edison agreeing to withdraw its proposal and take steps to reduce fish kills at some of its other power plants on the Hudson. The case affirmed the right of ordinary citizens to sue polluters.

The Fishermen’s Association morphed into the first Riverkeeper organization in 1983, and its successful strategy inspired similar grassroots groups on the Delaware River, Narragansett Bay, and other places. Some of them adopted the Riverkeeper moniker; others dubbed themselves waterkeepers, bay keepers, or sound keepers. In 1999, the disparate groups of water guardians formed the international Waterkeeper Alliance, and today there are 350 member groups in 46 countries, including 180 in the United States. Collectively, they help protect 2.7 million square miles of rivers, lakes, and streams, and aim to expand those protections to 20 million square miles over the next 20 years. Their overarching goal is to ensure that all communities have equal access to clean water and a healthy environment.

North Carolina has 15 Riverkeepers—the most of any state in the U.S. All have tracked significant negative impacts on water quality in the rivers they monitor as the state’s population and industry have grown. They serve as an environmental enforcement patrol that prioritizes reducing and cleaning up pollution.

Their godfather, if they can be said to have one, is Rick Dove, the first Riverkeeper in the state and 11th in the country. Dove came to Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point in 1975 as Staff Judge Advocate for the station commander and never left North Carolina. After retiring, he fished commercially for crab, bass, flounder, gray trout (Cynoscion regalis), and Atlantic croaker (Micropogonias undulatus). But the Neuse River where he often fished was sick, and its aquatic life was, too.

Dove and other anglers began to find sores on their catch—and on themselves. Some also experienced memory loss. In 1991, over one billion fish perished in the Neuse in a matter of days—one of the largest fish kills ever documented anywhere in the world. North Carolina State University aquatic ecology professor JoAnn Burkholder eventually identified the source of the kill as Pfiesteria, a microbe that thrives on nutrients from sewage, animal waste, and fertilizers.

Documented nutrient levels in the Neuse and Cape Fear watersheds had tripled since the first industrial hog farms came on line in the mid-1980s. Dove suspected industrial animal farms were to blame; these types of operations, which can house as many as 5,000 animals in a single facility had doubled in number over the previous decade. But he needed proof that they were the root cause of the dieoffs.

“I was out in a boat trying to find sources of pollution and going crazy because I couldn’t,” Dove recalls. “So I got into an airplane to see what the eagle sees. We watched hog farmers spraying hog waste right into rivers and streams and wetlands.” He pioneered the flyovers now used by every Riverkeeper in the state, as well as many around the world. He had also helped zero in on what may be North Carolina’s most intractable environmental justice issue: agricultural waste disposal.

In September 1999, as if to underscore the point, floodwaters from Hurricane Floyd breached many farms’ waste lagoons. More than a million chickens and turkeys and 110,000 hogs drowned. Streams of toxic feces, urine, and animal carcasses flowed into rivers, setting off an environmental disaster that lasted for months.

In the aftermath, the Riverkeepers and other environmental groups worked to secure a statewide moratorium on new industrial hog farms. Though that 1997 regulation remains in place today, it contains so many loopholes that people, groundwater, waterways, and biodiversity are still feeling industrial agriculture’s harmful impacts. Lagoons built at the start of the industrial hog farm boom in the late 1980s have not been upgraded or repaired, and the state’s general assembly has constructed a wall of protection around the industry.

The circumstances make the Riverkeepers all the more crucial today. “We work together on a daily basis to do these flights, ground surveillance, water sampling, and litigation,” Dove says. “We file reports to groups or state agencies that do enforcement. If we see repeated violations and the state isn’t doing anything, then we take it on ourselves to use every legal means available to stop it.”

Kemp Burdette claims to have known the Cape Fear before he was born. “My mom drank Cape Fear water when I was in her belly,” 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. My kids drink Cape Fear River water. I feel like this is my river.”

But his path to defending it was a circuitous one. In high school, Burdette was a chronic class cutter and barely graduated. College was not an option, so he joined the Navy and spent four years as an operations specialist and rescue swimmer. After his discharge, he enrolled in a junior college, then transferred to the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. He ended up graduating magna cum laude with a degree in geology and history, as well as an invitation to join the Peace Corps and a Fulbright Scholarship. Suddenly, the guy who barely got into college had his pick of graduate schools. He chose to study maritime history under Lewis “Skip” Fischer, a renowned historian at Memorial University in St. Johns, Newfoundland.

While Burdette was there, giant international fishing fleets were deploying advanced technology to “fish every fish out of the ocean.” The practices and lack of regulation cratered Newfoundland’s fishery-dependent economy, dismantled the marine food web, and devastated populations of vulnerable marine species. Watching those events unfold changed Burdette from a nature lover to environmentalist.

Burdette returned to the Cape Fear Basin in 2005 and put down stakes along the tannin-stained waters of the Black River, a tributary adorned with swamp roses in the spring, spider lilies in the summer, and bald cypress trees (Taxodium distichum) draped with moss year round.

When he became the Cape Fear Riverkeeper in 2008, Burdette found himself in the middle of what would become one of the area’s longest environmental battles. An international company called Titan had cut a backroom deal with New Hanover County officials to build a 3,000-acre coal-powered cement mine along the riverfront. The county had sweetened the deal with more than $4 million in incentives. Burdette rallied residents, environmental groups, civic organizations, and medical professionals against the increased pollution, diminished air quality, and potential negative health impacts the plant would bring. After an eight-year fight, Titan America abandoned its plans.

Not everyone appreciated the work that the Riverkeepers were doing. Practically every Riverkeeper has a story of being threatened, intimidated, or accused of being an outsider intent on destroying livelihoods. Burdette recalls a farmer’s wife riding his bumper for miles, honking her horn, and screaming, “You’re not welcome here!” Dove says people have flashed guns at him. Both men view those interactions as part of the cost they pay for trying to protect the environment.

Their concern goes beyond the watersheds each is tasked with watching. In February 2014, a stormwater drain pipe at a Duke Energy coal-fired power plant sent 39,000 tons of toxic coal ash into the Dan River near North Carolina’s border with Virginia. Coal ash contains heavy metals like arsenic, copper, and lead, and can harm freshwater fish, migratory birds, and aquatic and terrestrial plants, not to mention people. Believing that such incidents are not one-offs, Burdette decided to take a look around an abandoned Duke Energy coal-burning plant in his own watershed.

A month after the Dan River spill, he recruited a lawyer and another activist to join him on his jon boat, and steered it up the canal to collect water samples near the abandoned plant. But the trio found the way blocked by two metal booms of the sort used to contain a spill, as well as a sheriff’s deputy onshore. “When these gentlemen tell you not to go any further, y’all keep going?” the deputy asked. “I’m not gonna scratch you a ticket. I’m just gonna tell you to get on out of here.”

Burdette, a self-described river rat, appeared to comply, turning the boat around and traveling downstream for 30 or 40 yards. Then he spun and sped back upstream. He jerked the motor up, glided over the boom, and, once past the dumbstruck deputies, dropped the motor back in the water and proceeded to collect his samples. The escapade ended up on the Rachel Maddow Show and went viral.

The sheriff sent a handwritten apology to Cape Fear Riverwatch. But the kerfuffle didn’t end there. Dove had captured pictures of employees pumping coal ash directly into the canal during a flyover, and the water samples Burdette collected tested positive for coal ash.

Duke was ultimately charged with several criminal violations of the Clean Water Act. A year later, the corporation pleaded guilty to nine counts and was ordered to pay $102 million, the largest criminal fine in North Carolina history. The company was also ordered to remove about 80 million tons of coal ash from sites around the state and dispose of it in lined landfills—the largest coal ash clean-up in U.S. history.

The Cape Fear Riverwatch operates out of a rambling, lime green brick building a block from the river in downtown Wilmington under the Highway 17 overpass. Given the group’s outsized footprint, it’s a surprise to realize that the nonprofit carries out its ambitious agenda with just a handful of staff. They host river cleanups, boat and paddle tours, and educational seminars on everything from stormwater management to environmental justice.

“If we can get this whole community to understand just how critical the river is to their lives, the rest of our work is going to get easier,” says Burdette. “When you’re out on the water and you’re paying attention, you can understand how the ecosystem works, and how things are all dependent on one another.”

For the past six years, much of the group’s focus has been on per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, contamination. Known as forever chemicals because they don’t degrade, PFAS can also be called everywhere chemicals because they’re found in so many commonly used products, including nonstick cookware, water-repellent clothing, stain resistant fabrics and carpets, cosmetics, and firefighting foams. In 2017, DuPont and its spin-off, The Chemours Company, publicly acknowledged that their Fayetteville Works facility routinely dumped large quantities of the synthetic chemicals into the Cape Fear River and released airborne toxins as far back as 1980.

“This was a huge win for the Cape Fear River and the people who depend on it.”

— Kemp Burdette, Cape Fear Riverkeeper

In 2018, the Riverwatch sued Chemours in federal court and sued the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) in state court, asking for measures to stop the pollution and to enforce state and federal pollution laws. The following year, the Bladen County Superior Court directed Chemours to pay $13 million in penalties and costs to the DEQ. The order also required Chemours to address PFAS sources and contamination, and to provide safe drinking water to affected homes. “I never worked on an issue where I wasn’t 100 percent sure that we had the moral high ground,” Burdette says. “This was a huge win for the Cape Fear River and the people who depend on it.”

Many in the affected communities remain concerned about the impact of chemicals on their health and the fish in the river. And for good reason. PFAS contamination has been found in the Cape Fear’s channel catfish, largemouth and smallmouth bass, walleye, and perch. The striped bass (Morone saxatilis), another popular recreational fish already hard hit by construction, overfishing, and nutrient pollution, has one of the highest documented rates of PFAS of any North American fish. Researchers suspect the chemical is hampering the species’ reproduction.

Trying to protect the river and its biodiversity in a watershed drowning in industrial threats can feel like a game of whack-a-mole, and Burdette wants to show me what keeps him going. It’s a balmy late spring afternoon under an azure blue sky when we climb into his modified sailboat for a water-level view of the Cape Fear and its estuary. Sometimes, he tells me, he gets lost here himself. But he navigates the waterway like someone who belongs to it.

I keep my eyes peeled and my head on swivel, hoping to see bobcat (Lynx rufus), river otter (Lontra canadensis), or even a black bear (Ursus americanus), as long as it maintains a safe distance. If I’m really lucky, I might spot the endangered West Indian manatee—a gentle, ponderous mammal roughly the size and weight of a bison, or a loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta). Burdette has seen lots of alligators (Alligator mississippiensis) moving languidly on the riverbanks before submerging themselves in the swamp waters. I’m not so lucky, however.

We make our way through a swamp of ancient bald cypress trees. Some cypress in the state have lived more than 2,500 years, making them the oldest trees east of the Rocky Mountains. When we leave the swamp, their tangled limbs and plumes of green foliage give way to ghost trees in the estuary, a casualty of rising seas, saltwater intrusion, and ever more extreme storms brought by climate change. The tall lanky skeletons, with their pale limbs outstretched and barren, stand like sentinels amidst the rapidly disappearing wetlands.

The lower Cape Fear is a haven for birds, with more than 140 species, and Burdette easily identifies them for me by sight or sound—roseate spoonbills, wood storks, painted buntings, warblers. Cormorants patrol the pier with outstretched wings, great blue herons glide overhead, osprey and brown pelicans dive bomb the drink and emerge moments later, their gullets pulsating with wriggling fish.

As the sunlight begins to dim, we head back to the dock, passing a yellow-crowned night heron perched on a leafless branch at the water’s edge. One more reminder of all that Burdette is trying to protect—and all that persists at least in part because of the Riverwatch’s work. “It is a very difficult and slow fight,” he says. “The wins are small and the progress is incremental. But we’re in this for the long term.”


Melba Newsome

David Moskowitz

Melba Newsome is an award-winning science and environmental journalist and director
of the Environmental & Epistemic Justice Initiative's Summer Institute at Wake Forest

Madeline Gray

David Moskowitz

Madeline Gray is a freelance photographer based in Wilmington, North Carolina. She
documents the rural and coastal communities found throughout the eastern part of the
state. And she is happiest at the end of a long dirt road or sitting on someone's front
porch—exploring places less traveled.

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