“We’re all downstream of something.”
Such powerful words end Cullen Hoback’s feature documentary, “What Lies Upstream.” Last Thursday at Waterman’s Brewing in Wrightsville Beach, Cape Fear River Watch presented a screening of the documentary, as it holds relevance to our fluorochemical situation flowing in the Cape Fear River.
The documentary deals with the chemical MCHM, a detergent used for cleaning coal, and the aftermath of the discovery that tanks holding the chemical, owned by Freedom Industries, were found to have leaked around 7,500 gallons into the Elk River in Charleston, WV. In January of 2014, residents of Charleston were alerted to the spill but not by the company’s report; they noticed a smell, sweet like licorice, in their water. Parallels can be drawn for what happened next between our own situation last summer: public outrage, silence from the company, differing reports on what amount is safe from governmental organizations, the crisis dragging on and on while people remained uncertain about the safety of what was pouring from their taps.
In a scene that might be humorous in a context where it didn’t affect people’s lives, Hoback takes a sample of the water to a “Best Drinking Water” competition elsewhere in the state and presents it to the panel of judges. Not only do they all refuse to drink it, but one, whose grandmother survived World War II in Europe, tells him she got through the war because she knew not to drink water that had a smell to it. That judge bought the sample from Hoback and promptly threw it in the garbage.
The fact the chemical had an odor is significant. “Without the smell,” Hoback says in the film, “the chemical would have gone unnoticed.” Hoback jumps to Flint, Michigan, later in the film, and points out how lead has no odor. Thus, “officials could cover it up for two years.” The EPA in Flint didn’t fire or dismiss anyone, even after the news broke. Through a series of horrifying internal memos released to the public by whistleblowers, Hoback reveals the EPA had (has?) a culture of “don’t find anything bad”; their inaction in Flint was due in a large part to the fact “they weren’t sure Flint was the kind of community they wanted to go out on a limb for.” A Reuters report revealed over 3,000 areas in the United States had lead levels higher than those found in Flint.
Back in Charleston, Hoback works with an independent water-quality specialist, Dr. Andy Welton, to test the toxicity of the chemical. Dr. Welton finds the lab which did initial testing and had worked for many other chemical companies, outright fabricated the results of the toxicity test—meaning the chemical was twice as toxic as initially thought.
The climax of the documentary comes when Hoback ventures out into the river and collects samples near the discharge pipes of the companies in Chemical Valley. When the results are analyzed, Hoback is puzzled to find no large peaks of the few major chemicals he expected—instead, he finds many smaller peaks of unidentified chemicals. It is revealed to be because many companies are no longer dumping their waste into rivers; they’re pouring it down the drains, where it ends up settling in with the solids at a wastewater treatment facility. Many fertilizer companies use the sludge to make their products, so when it gets spread out on people’s lawns and gardens, it carries the chemicals with it. When it rains, the runoff ends up, as all runoff does, in the river. The film does a terrific job of illustrating just how difficult it is to escape the consequences of such actions.
After the film, Cape Fear Riverkeeper Kemp Burdette and River Watch Assistant Project Manager Madi Polera answered questions from the crowd. The first part focused on fluorochemicals. Burdette spoke about the Toxic Substances Control Act, the legislation meant to protect us from chemicals, which he says is “fairly weak.” The Trump EPA has done very little to implement an overhaul of the act which Congress voted on; River Watch has sued the EPA to take action. Polera reminded us “these companies don’t do a lot by accident.” They often discharge chemicals when they know regulators aren’t looking, so they stay within their permit.
After a question from encore, the discussion shifted to focus on the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs, upstream in Sampson and Duplin counties. The Cape Fear River basin is home to the highest concentration of these factory farms in the world. On the river’s banks in Tar Heel, NC, is the largest slaughterhouse, operated by Smithfield. The main issue with the operations is the staggering amount of sewage they produce: a total of 15,700 tons of hog waste daily in Duplin County alone, twice the amount produced by the human population of New York City. The waste is left untreated and held in open, unlined “lagoons,” or sprayed onto farmer’s fields, where the excess runoff ends up in our rivers. The Chinese corporation behind the process (the WH Group, which purchased Smithfield two years ago) contracts the work of raising the pigs out to NC farmers. The contracts are worded such that WH owns the feed, the animal and all the profit, while the farmer is left owning (and liable for) the land and, more importantly, the waste.
Polera reminds us the farms are directly responsible for about half of the nitrogen found in the Cape Fear. Excessive amounts of the nutrient can lead to harmful blue-green algae blooms and fish kills. “There are 10 million people in NC,” Burdette tells. “There are 10 million hogs in NC east of I-95, and none of their waste gets treated.”
Additionally, the NC House passed legislation making it more difficult for people who live near the farms to sue for nuisance violations (just imagine the smell … the flies … the rodents!). House Bill 467, co-sponsored by Rep. Jimmy Dixon from Duplin County and passed last year, makes it so property owners can only collect the rental value of their property when suing an adjacent farm, which in rural communities rarely equals the property’s full value.
Between the factory hog farms and coal ash pits and fluorochemical manufacturers, Wilmington finds itself downstream from much to be concerned about. It is unfortunate but necessary that we become extra-aware of similar situations around the world. Only through education can we learn how to protect the health of our waters and ourselves in the future.