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LIVE LOCAL, LIVE SMALL: Ruminating on the Cape Fear water crisis

Consuming toxic water incites fear.

“Yuck, this is awful.” I pulled a face and set my cup down.

“At least it doesn’t have cholera,” the young lady I was talking with quietly needled me.

We were spending a summer up at MIT where the drinking water came from the Charles River and was unpalatable—at best.

“Yes,” I conceded. “You’re right; I’m very lucky and I know that. It still doesn’t mean it tastes good.”

In fact, I thought at the time, it tasted revolting.

In Wilmington, our drinking water comes from the Cape Fear River.

Last week the StarNews began reporting the presence of GenX in our drinking water:

“A chemical replacement for a key ingredient in Teflon, linked to cancer and a host of other ailments, has been found in the drinking water system of the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority (CFPUA), which cannot filter it.”

That is one hell of a lead-in sentence, isn’t it?

Apparently, it is produced at the Chemours facility in Fayetteville, and they have been dumping it in our river for a while now. Also, the approval for the use of the chemical in an industrial setting does not approve it for disposal via water. Still, it appears to be in our water—and the most recent study is cited from 2013-14 and shows nine times the recommended amount in our drinking water.


Naturally, our household water was pretty much the only thing we discussed the evening the news surfaced. What do we do? Do we buy bottled water? Do we get a Culligan account, with big 5-gallon jugs of water to be delivered? Do we buy a filtration system? Reverse Osmosis “may” remove it, but there is no literature, no information, no confirmation.

“We should use your roof—the slate roof will be cleaner for rainwater,” Jock suggested.

“Are we going to start drinking rainwater?” I asked. “What, like with those tablets you take camping?”

Jock began outlining a hypothetical process for filtering first solids (i.e. bird shit), then killing bacteria with ozone and chlorine.  He has been working on water pumps and fresh-water access with The Full Belly Project for a couple of years, so his pump is primed with all of this information. I hated to do it, but I held up a hand to stem the flow.

“Sweetheart, it is illegal to drink rainwater in New Hanover County.”


“You can’t even use it to flush a toilet.” I shook my head.

“Are you kidding?” he asked. “That is the most obvious source of water next to the river.”

“Listen, every time I have to talk to the planning department about plumbing and water sources and back-flow preventers for the bookstore, or the Literary Loft, or now the B&B—even when we were looking at rain barrels—they are most insistent that no rainwater can be harvested and diverted for flushing toilets, bathing or drinking.”

He stared at me in disbelief. I decided to get him a beer. Surely, it was still safe to drink.    

“You know I have worked with ozone a lot in the last few years,” he finally offered—like somehow I was the one questioning his abilities. Please. He might not be the person to call when you are having a crisis with a soufflé that is flat, but I have long said, if we were stranded on a desert island, Jock would have shelter, food and water organized by nightfall.

He retreated to brood and scheme as I headed out the door to go watch “The Laramie Project” at Cape Fear Playhouse on Castle Street. I was so flummoxed by the news of our drinking water being contaminated that I kept flapping my arms and winding up lost. I left the lights of my car on; I almost missed the last third of the play. This just couldn’t be real—not in modern-day America. There are some things we need to be able to trust; the safety of the water coming out of the tap is one of them.

The StarNews asked good questions: Can you still bathe in the water? No one knows.

What sort of impact does this have on fish and wildlife? Again, no clear answer yet.

What about dogs? I wondered. I do not see any information about giving this to pets. I mean, poisoning myself is one thing, but Horace and Hilda? They depend upon us to put their safety at the front of the decision-making process.

When I came back from the play Jock was still brooding.

“Any conclusions, sweetheart? Are we going to start boiling rainwater?”

I was half joking and half genuinely serious. We live so small and so sustainably compared to the average city-dweller already; I was on pins and needles at his answer. I could see long, lonely evenings stretching out ahead of me, boiling kettles to try to fill a bath. Oh, crap.

Jock began recounting his researches into water-filter systems—none of which address this chemical and most of which have very little, actual technical data.

“You just have to take them on faith.” He shook his head. “You can’t trust the douchebaggery of Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, so you are just supposed to trust the douchebaggery of Amazon or Home Depot to sell you something to make your water safe—but with no actual information!”

“Can I quote you in print about ‘the douchebaggery of CFPUA’?” I asked.

“Absolutely,” he nodded. “And Home Depot and Amazon, too.”

“You will get no arguments from any independent bookstore owner in this dining room about the awfulness of Amazon.” I smiled.

He was too upset to smile back—because he was recounting the misery brought down on him a few years ago when he started digging an irrigation well with a telephone pole truck. The NC Department of Environmental Quality was upset with this and they locked horns. Clearly, drilling a well for drinking water in the middle of the city was not going to be easy to hide—and if they caught Jock at this well-drilling business again, it was going to get dirty.

“We also don’t know what is in the ground water anymore,” he added. “You don’t know who buried batteries in the next yard over 30 years ago.”

“This is starting to sound like a Dylan song,” I commented.

But we still didn’t have a workable solution for how to give the dogs drinking water.

“If we were in the tropics, we would fill clear plastic bottles with water and leave them on a black surface in the sun to sterilize.”

“But we are not in the tropics, and that will address pathogens but not this GenX Teflon stuff,” I pointed out. “So, are we boiling rainwater for them and adding a few drops of Clorox, then letting it stand out?”

“I don’t know.” 

Jock looked on the brink of tears. He works with these problems in some of the worst conditions in the world. Yet, back home, where we shouldn’t even need to have the conversation, his hands are tied every way he turns. 

That is it: the sense of powerlessness. Humans, when confronted with a problem, want to find a solution. But to be powerless to ensure the safety of our loved ones from one of the fundamental necessities of life is almost incomprehensible. Thankfully, our mayor has come out unequivocally demanding answers and solutions. Personally, I would like the problem resolved first and then blame apportioned. Local stores are reporting a rise in bottled water sales. But are we going to do that indefinitely?   

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