Press Release | January 16, 2019

Groups Petition N.C. to Remove “Swamp Waters” Classification from Lower Cape Fear River

WILMINGTON, N.C. – Waterkeeper Alliance and Cape Fear River Watch, represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, petitioned today to remove North Carolina’s “swamp waters” classification from 15 miles of the Lower Cape Fear River flowing past Wilmington. 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.

Over the objections of environmental groups, academic experts, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the state reclassified the lower Cape Fear as “swamp waters” in 2015. EPA rejected North Carolina’s classification in July 2018, in part because the state failed to include data about the river’s velocity. While the lower Cape Fear is a fast-moving river, under state law, swamp waters are defined largely by their “very low velocities.” EPA also found that the state failed to consider, as required by federal law, whether water quality in the river could be improved.

When designating the lower Cape Fear as “swamp waters” in 2015, the state also failed to subject the watershed’s industrial animal operations to meaningful scrutiny. The agency relied on a model assuming these operations have no impact on water quality, despite evidence to the contrary.

Waste from industrial animal operations, when it enters a river, can reduce the dissolved oxygen and increases acidity, making it difficult for fish and other aquatic life to survive. This segment of the Cape Fear is a primary nursery area and provides critical habitat for endangered Atlantic sturgeon.

“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,” said Kemp Burdette, Cape Fear Riverkeeper. “Reclassifying it as a swamp isn’t the answer; imposing pollution limits, as required by law, is ”

“This stretch of river has been impaired for twenty years,” said Will Hendrick, staff attorney for Waterkeeper Alliance and manager of its North Carolina Pure Farms Pure Waters campaign. “Under the Clean Water Act, the state has a legal obligation – an obligation it can’t dodge – to curb pollution.”

“The swampwater classification is not enforceable under federal law, as the EPA rightfully disapproved the change,” said Brooks Rainey Pearson, attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. “It is past time for the state to remove this erroneous classification from the books. The lower Cape Fear is simply not a swamp.”

As allowed under state law, the groups petitioned the director of the state’s Environmental Management Commission for the change. The next step is for the groups to present the petition at the March 13 meeting of the Environmental Management Commission.


About Waterkeeper Alliance
Waterkeeper Alliance is a global movement uniting more than 300 Waterkeeper Organizations and Affiliates around the world, focusing citizen action on issues that affect our waterways, from pollution to climate change. The Waterkeeper movement patrols and protects over 2.5 million square miles of rivers, lakes and coastlines in the Americas, Europe, Australia, Asia, and Africa. For more information please visit:

About Cape Fear Riverwatch
Cape Fear River Watch is a nonprofit organization with a mission to protect and improve the
water quality of the Lower Cape Fear River Basin through education, advocacy and action. Cape Fear River Watch is the sole Riverkeeper for the entire Lower Cape Fear River and advocates on behalf of the river basin at the local, state, and national levels. For more information, please visit:

Southern Environmental Law Center
For more than 30 years, the Southern Environmental Law Center has used the power of the law to champion the environment of the Southeast. With over 80 attorneys and nine offices across the region, SELC is widely recognized as the Southeast’s foremost environmental organization and regional leader. SELC works on a full range of environmental issues to protect our natural resources and the health and well-being of all the people in our region.

Are you a reporter and would like more information? Please visit our press contact page for a full list of SELC’s press contacts.

Press Contacts

Kathleen Sullivan

Senior Communications Manager (NC)

Phone: 919-945-7106
Email: [email protected]