News | July 16, 2019

Lower Cape Fear River no longer to be classified as ‘swamp waters’

Fifteen miles of North Carolina’s lower Cape Fear River will no longer be classified as “swamp waters,” thanks to a successful petition by environmental groups that SELC represented. This win will hopefully lead to stricter pollution regulations.

Attorney Brooks Rainey Pearson puts it this way: “The state now gets another chance to create a management plan that fully protects the Cape Fear River.”

When the state’s Environmental Management Commission granted Waterkeeper Alliance and Cape Fear River Watch’s petition last week, it also directed its Division of Water Resources to develop a new management strategy for the lower portion of the river that flows past Wilmington, North Carolina.

The Cape Fear is the state’s largest and most industrialized watershed, and it is home to the highest concentration of hogs on the planet. Those five million hogs produce roughly the same amount of waste as all the people in the entire New York City metro area.

Likewise, the Cape Fear River basin also has the state’s highest concentration of industrial poultry operations.

When waste from animal operations enters a river, it can reduce the dissolved oxygen and increase acidity, making it difficult for fish to live and shellfish to form healthy shells. This is particularly harmful in the lower Cape Fear River, because it’s a primary nursery area that provides critical habitat for the endangered Atlantic sturgeon.

It was 2015 when the state, under much industry pressure, reclassified the lower portion of the river as “swamp waters,” prompting a smattering of objections from environmental groups, academic experts, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Environmental Protection Agency rejected that classification in July 2018, partially because the lower Cape Fear does not meet the state’s own definition of “swamp water”— while the lower Cape Fear is a fast-moving river, swamp waters, under state law, are defined by “very low velocities.”

In the 2015 reclassification, North Carolina also failed to scrutinize the watershed’s industrial animal operations, instead relying on a model that assumed the operations have no impact on water quality, despite obvious extensive evidence to the contrary.

“Logic and law beat industry pressure today,” said Cape Fear Riverkeeper Kemp Burdette when the petition was granted. “This decision should begin the process of imposing pollution limits on the industrial animal operations choking our river.”

Added Will Hendrick, a senior attorney for Waterkeeper Alliance and manager of its North Carolina Pure Farms Pure Waters Campaign, “The state has a legal obligation to curb upstream pollution. …Today’s decision sets the table for this essential work to begin.”