Former Riverkeeper speaks about river pollution

  • Posted: Sunday, May 11, 2014 12:16 a.m.
Rick Dove
Rick Dove

Rick Dove, an award-winning former Riverkeeper, told an audience at Catawba College Tuesday about “the devastating impacts” that pollution from animal and coal industries can have on local communities and the environment. His presentation, “North Carolina: In the Eye of the Perfect Storm,” was sponsored by the Center for the Environment.

Dr. John Wear, the Center’s executive director, talked in his introduction about the motivation behind Dove’s work to make people aware of the dangers of water pollution in the state. “We often read about environmental activists,” he said. “What I find is that they are, for the most part, citizens who have had some experience that has redirected their lives.”


Wear said that Dove, a graduate of the University of Baltimore School of Law and the National War College, began a commercial fishing operation in Havelock after retiring as a colonel from the U.S. Marine Corps. Dove, his son and others eventually became sick because of water pollution caused by the micro-organism Pfiesteria. It forced him to close his fishing operation in the early 1990s and propelled him into his work as the Neuse Riverkeeper. “His personal experience with water pollution led him to become an environmental advocate,” Wear said.

In 1996 Wear served as president of the N.C. Watershed Coalition, and the Center hosted the second largest watershed conference in the nation at Catawba. “It was at that conference that we presented Rick a statewide award for his efforts to educate the public about the causes and dangers of water pollution,” he said.

An aerial photo and video journalist who documents sources of pollution, Dove began his presentation by saying that good environmental practices will always be good economic practices. Good environmental practices help sustain the foundations on which industries are built and keep the consumer population healthy, ensuring that those industries can carry on for years.

So why, Dove asked, do many industries pollute the environment instead?

“I think the circumstances for our state today are worse than I’ve seen them in 20 years,” Dove said.

To illustrate his point, Dove cited the giant fish kills that occurred in the Neuse River during the early 1990’s. The devastation of the fish population was linked to rising oxygen and phosphorus levels in the river, which resulted in lowered oxygen levels, an increase in molds and fungi, and a dramatic rise in the population of the vampire-like Pfiesteria micro-organism.

These die-offs are still happening today, Dove said, and are concerning because Pfiesteria, which causes sores and eventual death, don’t just affect fish.

“One of the problems with pollution is that it affects people,” Dove said.

When the outbreak first occurred in the ‘90s, reports began coming in of fishermen and locals developing sores, as well as experiencing memory loss and respiratory problems.

These symptoms were eventually linked to Pfiesteria, which was theorized to produce an airborne neurotoxin that, in large enough quantities, could affect humans. Dove experienced many of these symptoms firsthand.

The rise in Pfiesteria and resulting fish kills have been linked to the boom in factory-style hog farming in the area, Dove explained. Eastern North Carolina has the largest concentration of hogs in the world, Dove said, and all of the waste is used as fertilizer for local farms. The industry depends on this cheap method of waste disposal.

The problem, Dove said, is that the unfiltered waste often becomes runoff and makes its way through ditches and streams to the rivers. The waste, high in ammonium nitrates, helped cause the explosion of Pfiesteria in the coastal plain’s rivers.

Even if waste is properly disposed of, factory farms in Eastern North Carolina are vulnerable to hurricanes and regular coastal storms. When flooding occurs, all of the unfiltered waste is washed directly into rivers and waterways and may contaminate wells and groundwater.

The smell from the hog farms is also an issue, Dove said. Large fans equipped on the long sheds blow the polluted air outside.

“Where does it go?” Dove asked.

Dove said that when he was taking aerial photographs of the factory farms, he could often smell them--even 2,000 feet up. Small family farms, communities and churches are often surrounded by the factory farms. The stench can cause problems for residents with respiratory problems and discourages tourists and new businesses from coming to the area, Dove explained, which leaves the impoverished East in a worse condition than before.

In light of the recent coal ash spill in Danville, Va., Dove also voiced his concerns about the storage of coal ash. There are 14 storage facilities for coal ash in North Carolina, he said, many just upriver from a source of drinking water. Coal ash can contain toxins such as mercury, lead and arsenic.

“These are not things we want in our air and these are not things we want in our water,” Dove said, “but we got ‘em in both places.”

Audience member Randy Welch, the district manager for Duke Energy, gave his company’s perspective on the coal ash spill. A Duke Energy facility spilled the coal ash into the Dan River, and the company is responsible for the river’s cleanup. Welch addressed many of the concerns Dove mentioned about the contamination and the likelihood of future spills. The cleanup of the Dan River was going well, Welch said, and river water had just been cleared for use in irrigation.

Welch disagreed with Dove about the long-term, negative impacts. He then told the audience that the company fully complied with the current requirements for water quality protection.

One concerned citizen in the audience asked about the dangers for those living near the ash ponds. Welch said that Duke Energy offered well contamination assessments for residents who live near the Salisbury storage facility.

Dove wrapped up his presentation by encouraging attendees to be active and to make smart choices.

“The choices we make allow or control these industry practices,” he said.

He asked audience members to think about who was paying the price so that they could have a cheaper option.

People should be concerned, Dove said, about the state government’s apparent lack of interest in environmental issues. He advised supporting political candidates with good environmental practices who recognize that economic prosperity is closely linked with sustainability. Those interested in getting involved, or who are interested in joining letter-writing campaigns to representatives, can visit waterkeepers.org or neuseriver.org.

Whatever they choose, Dove said, it is important to start now. The laws of nature are absolute, he reminded attendees. Nature can, and will, process pollution, but when it does, there are consequences--and by then, it’s too late.

“It’s time for all of us to begin doing something - to act,” he said.

• • •

The Center for the Environment at Catawba College was founded in 1996 to provide education and outreach centered on prevalent environmental challenges and to foster community-oriented sustainable solutions that can serve as a model for programs throughout the country.

For more information, visit www.CenterForTheEnvironment.org or www.CampaignForCleanAir.org.

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