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DECADE OF ENVIRONMENTAL CHANGE: Choosing a path to a not-so-destructive future

OVERFLOWING WITH WASTE: Patrick Connell of Cape Fear River Watch got aerial shots of pig farms in Brusnwick County overflowing with pig waste right after Hurricane Florence last September.

When my steadfast editor, Shea Carver, asked me to write a retrospective for the last issue of the decade, I was surprised to find I had written 81 articles for this wonderful publication. As I perused my catalog to write a look back over the decade, I was glad to find in every story lay a fond memory, a chance to grow and learn something new. I was delighted my prose has gotten (a little) smoother, and developed into something I can call my own. Writing has given me an excuse to live the life I’ve always wanted to; I’ve gotten to do incredible things with this work—going places and meeting people I never would have otherwise. I’m quite proud of what I’ve done here. For this I’m exceptionally grateful to you, dear reader, for putting up with me all these years.

But this is a rather self-gratifying exercise, looking back at what I’ve typed in the last 10 years. As always, I want to shift the focus outward to the natural world around us. How has our environment, locally and globally, changed in the past decade? Welp, pour a drink (a rather strong one because most of it is bad news) and let’s break it down…

I’ve written several articles about hog farms, including one in which I half-seriously suggested pumping all the state’s pig waste into Wendell Murphy’s River Landing gated golf-course community in Wallace. I calculated the walls would need to be 17-feet high to contain it all (I’m still very much in favor of making this happen). As of now, there are still over 100 million hogs and chickens living in factory farms in North Carolina, defecating into our drainage basin with impunity. The new swine permit issued in April 2019 sketched out a new groundwater monitoring program, but did nothing to address the continuing problems of environmental justice. There are no signs that putrid pink waste lagoons will disappear from our lowlands. If you’d like some visual sense of the scale of the problem, might I suggest spending a mired morning perusing the NC DEQ’s CAFO map. It’s available at deq.nc.gov/cafo-map.

I’ve written about overdevelopment, about how the people who run our city, under the guise of looking toward the future, are bulldozing our past. Look at the shift from green to gray happening all around us: Wilmington is the new Florida, a once-verdant place quickly growing too big for its bridges. Where is the balance? Airlie Road was once the prettiest road in Wilmington, a cathedral we could drive through. Now, we see razed lots, awaiting cookie-cutter McMansions, and oak trees that took hundreds of years to grow being down ad nauseum across our city. What a tragedy. These places, once gone, cannot be replaced in our lifetime.

One of the biggest stories I’ve covered for this magazine was Tap Watergate, the ugly discovery that fluorochemical pollution from the DuPont/Chemours compound upstream was making its way from our river into our drinking glasses. Last week, the Sweeney Water Treatment plant began installation of granular activated carbon filters to remove the PFAS from our drinking water, at a cost to the customer of only $46 million (plus an additional $2.9 million yearly to maintain). They’re predicting it will come online by 2022. Chemours has been barred from discharging PFAS-containing wastewater into the river since December of 2017, and last February, thanks to the hard work of Cape Fear River Watch and NC DEQ, Chemours signed a consent order to build a thermal oxidizer, which will capture the PFAS air pollution at the facility, with remedial steps to clean up sediment and groundwater hopefully forthcoming. It’s expected to cost them upward of $200 million to fix the problem—which, funny  enough, they announced they were suing DuPont for in July.

So that’s a glimmer of good news, but it doesn’t change the fact that for 37 years, residents of the Cape Fear Region were drinking this chemical cocktail without knowing it. Even today, the persistence of these chemicals in the environment can be plainly seen. Plus, financially every month, we are still paying for it. Dr. Detlef Knappe, the scientist who spearheaded the research paper which illuminated the GenX problem, said in October utilities can expect to see PFAS in raw water drawn from the Cape Fear “for decades to come.”

However, what I’ve written about most of all is the many-headed hydra of anthropogenic climate change, still the biggest problem facing our planet today. The planet has continued to warm, with Australia expecting a record heat wave of over 120 degrees F this week and the sea ice at the polar cap disappearing faster than ever before (a continued downward trend shows the extent of ice has not returned to pre-2007 levels, and it’s estimated that 95% of sea ice older than four years is gone). Our coastal region is particularly susceptible to the stronger and more frequent storms that climate change will bring, a fact we experienced during Hurricane Florence two years ago (which FEMA just announced topped half a billion dollars in infrastructure recovery spending in the state due to the storm). At least in April the Trump administration announced it was putting plans to expand seismic testing and drilling for oil and natural gas in the Atlantic on hold … indefinitely.

One thing I’ve learned in my past eight years as an environmental journalist is it’s necessary to get out from behind the desk as often possible and spend time out in the environment. This is why, after publishing depressing stuff like this, you’ll often find me heading down to my boat to untie my lines and raise my sails. I reach a point where I just can’t think about it anymore, so to stay somewhat sane, I don’t. Maybe that’s a weakness on my part, maybe I’m just running from problems. I don’t know. What I do know is I’m much happier when I’m on the water.

Despite everything I’ve written, our Cape Fear River remains a magical place. When I’m out there, I don’t think about the pig poo and fluorochemicals coursing through the water below—or at least they’re easier to ignore. I watch the pelicans and goofy cormorants greet the dolphins who sidle up alongside to say hello. I bask in the warmth of the winter sun as it tracks across the wide, blue cloud-peppered sky, and feel the fresh breeze against my cheek, filling my sails. When I shut off the noisy, smoking motor, silence and sanity prevails. I hear the world whispering to me. Using ancient tools of patience and sensitivity to conditions, my boat works with the wind to take me where I want to go, rather than fight against the way the world is. I feel hope again. When this is possible, I think, What else might be?

Where will the next 10 years take us? I think it mostly depends on how we choose to get there. Will we keep on bashing against the wind and waves with the machinery of mankind, fighting the natural world at every opportunity? Or will we find the civility and patience to listen to our planet, to wait until the tide is right and the wind is in our favor, before going where we want to go?

Down one path lies our future. Down the other, our self-destruction. Choose wisely, humanity. Our next decade is a critical one.

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Encore Magazine regularly covers topics pertaining to news, arts, entertainment, food, and city life in Wilmington. It also maintains schedules and listings of local events like concerts, festivals, live performance art and think-tank events. Encore Magazine is an entity of H&P Media, which also powers Wilmington’s local ticketing platform, 910tix.com. Print and online editions are updated every Wednesday.

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