The Lower Middle Cape Fear

Meet Doug Springer. He's the Cape Fear Riverkeeper, affiliated with the Cape Fear River Watch and with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.'s Waterkeepers Alliance. Kennedy became a water quality advocate in the 1980s when GE was dumping PCBs into the Hudson River, rendering its fish unfit for human consumption and totally destroying the commercial fishing and recreational economy of a good-sized region in upstate New York. His intervention failed to save the Hudson, but in 1999 he founded the Waterkeepers Alliance to provide scientific and legal support for the growing ranks of environmental activists—variously known as riverkeepers, baykeepers, soundkeepers, etc.—patrolling the lakes and streams of the world.

"There are 200 of us now," Springer said. "We are establishing an international presence in places like South America and China."

The waterkeepers are all affiliated with small, local, nonprofit environmental groups, and Cape Fear River Watch is fairly typical. It has a full-time staff of three and operates out of a small building that sits in the shade of the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge. The group conducts free educational seminars on the first Saturday of the month, river clean-ups on the second Saturday, and a paddling event on the third Saturday. Some of its funding is derived from the paddleboat concession on Wilmington's Greenfield Lake.

Springer says mercury levels in the river are highest within a ten-mile span just north of the city. The source of the mercury is unknown, but one reasonably good guess is that it came from an old cement plant that used to operate on the banks of the river in nearby Castle Hayne. So Springer became particularly proactive when Titan Cement proposed building a new cement plant near that old location.

"The old cement plant was here 25 years ago and it wasn't here very long and it wasn't a coal-burning plant," he said. "You can see where they mined and didn't do proper restoration."

That area looks to be carved out of the surrounding forest, some industrial-type structures still standing, some portions of the riverbank completely barren of vegetation.

"People can look at pictures and you just don't get how big 2,400 acres is. And you can't do that right on the banks of a river, and not right on the banks of a river that is already mercury impaired."

Generous deposits of limestone in and around the river keep the industrialists coming back to this area, and Titan proposed to mine an area four to five times larger than the former operation. "The scope of this is amazing, from here to Hampstead. They wanted to build big conveyor belts and sometimes they'd come in with multiple kilns. That was originally what they applied for, and they were using mediocre technology at best."

Worse yet, politicians in Wilmington lured Titan in with the offer of a $4.2 million incentive package. Springer soon found himself in a courtroom with a battalion of lawyers, and he mustered support from multiple sources.

"All waters of North Carolina now have some level of mercury warning, and it's illegal under the Clean Water Act to put another gram of mercury into this river by any industry. That's how severely impacted this river is."

That was good enough for Duke University's Environmental Law Center, which stepped in and did most of the heavy litigation. On this particular occasion the Waterkeepers Alliance took a back seat and provided advice and resources as the case progressed.

"With Titan they've been in reserve for us. Through them we have been able to get some funding, and if we weren't members we would have already been sued. Titan at least knows they can't take that on."

He said the Waterkeepers Alliance is much more active with the Neuse Riverkeeper, our neighbor to the north, who has a far more serious hog farm lagoon problem than does the Cape Fear. "They've brought in full-time attorneys for them," he said.

He said the real heroes in this story are the guys at the N.C. Department of Marine Fisheries. "They were the first to call me up behind the scenes and say, 'Doug, you got to get into this'."

In addition to his riverkeeping duties, Springer runs a charter boat tour of the Northeast aboard the Lorelei.

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Terms: Cape Fear River: Lower Middle Cape Fear

Information on Cape Fear River: Lower Middle Cape Fear

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