From ash pond, to river, to your bloodstream

Apr. 08, 2014 @ 03:38 PM

When you have finished drinking this bottle of water, fill it with our tap water for liquid refreshment that tastes as good and is just as pure as what was in the bottle.

That was the message from the City of Wilmington’s proud and professional public utilities department at an event celebrating one of its enlightened water quality improvement projects a few years ago. Their message still hits home with me. Every time I remember it, I am grateful for the blessing of safe and carefully treated water that is available in almost every city and town in North Carolina.

But should I be so confident?

Remembering that Wilmington gets most of its water from the Cape Fear River, I read  “Down the Wild Cape Fear: A River Journey through the Heart of North Carolina” with a special interest in what author Philip Gerard wrote about what was being deposited in the waters of the Cape Fear as they flowed from the Piedmont to Wilmington’s intake point in Bladen County.

His great concern is with the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations. He worries about the danger of agricultural waste and chemicals. Millions of hogs are confined on farms in the Cape Fear basin, each producing about two tons of waste a year, “completely untreated, considerably more waste that human beings produce in the state of North Carolina,” Gerard learned from river keeper Kemp Burdette.

Burdette continued, “It’s a giant factory where you’re cramming thousands of animals into a tiny little room and feeding them full of antibiotics, because they couldn’t naturally live that way, and they’re pooping a lot. Where do you think all that’s going?”

It “runs into the river, which sooner of later carries it to the intake pipe for our drinking water.”

As Gerard investigated the possible effects on air and water quality of a proposed Titan America cement plant, he realized something important. “Here I am writing about a river I’ve been drinking for more than twenty years. It’s quite literally inside me, running in my bloodstream and inside my cells, which are made from the water I drink and are rejuvenated every eight years. The Cape Fear River has made me—and tens of thousands of others—what we are today. For a moment the thought stuns me with its utterly obvious implications.”

On his journey down the Cape Fear, Gerard did not notice something else that affects the quality of the Cape Fear water he drinks. What he missed is something that made the news a few weeks ago. In the aftermath of the rupture of a pipe that sent 82,000 tons of coal ash and 27 million gallons of chemically polluted water into the Dan River in February, a group of North Carolina environmentalists attempted to inspect a coal ash pond at a former Progress Energy, now Duke Energy, site not far from where the Deep and Haw rivers meet to form the Cape Fear. Even though they were in the navigable waters of a Cape Fear canal, Duke employees and the local sheriff told them they were on private property. Later, while inspecting the property in an airplane, they took photos that apparently showed men deliberately draining the ash pond into a canal that flows into the Cape Fear, setting it on course to take its poisons towards Philip Gerard’s blood stream and cells.

The photo appeared on the front pages of a major newspaper and raised further concerns about the reliability and commitment of Duke and its regulators to keep Gerard’s water supply safe and healthy.

The environmental group’s pilot told me that the photo of the draining operation was high resolution. “When you blow it up,” he told me, “you can see one of those guys giving us a very impolite hand signal.”

I am still hoping for something better from their employer.

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. Preview the upcoming program on UNC-MX digital channel  (Time Warner #1276 or #4.4) on Fridays at 9 p.m. For more information or to view prior programs visit the webpage at This Sunday’s guest is William Ferris, author of “The Storied South: Voices of Writers and Artists.”