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Report: NC rivers polluted with high amounts of toxic chemicals from industrial facilities

Grace Vitaglione
In order from left: Katie Craig, State Director of the NCPIRG Education Fund; Larry Cahoon, marine biology professor at UNCW; Kemp Burdette, Cape Fear Riverkeeper

The lower Cape Fear ranked in the top five of watersheds receiving the highest amounts of toxins in 2020, according to a new report from the North Carolina Public Interest Research Group, known as NCPIRG.

The report, released by NCPIRG on Tuesday, found that North Carolina has the highest levels in the country of toxic pollutants that are linked to developmental delays.

Nitrates accounted for more than 90% of those toxins by weight, mostly from animal processing plants and petroleum refiners.

Cape Fear Riverkeeper Kemp Burdette said animal waste from the large number of hog farms in North Carolina is a big factor in nitrate pollution of the Cape Fear River.

The report was released a day after the Supreme Court heard a case that could limit the scope of the Clean Water Act. Katie Craig, state director of the NCPIRG Education Fund, said that would be a backslide.

"We need to be moving towards safer, healthier, cleaner water and not sliding backwards," she said. "Our waterways should be safe for drinking, swimming, fishing and everything else.”

Burdette said that even as it stands right now, the Clean Water Act is nowhere near accomplishing its goal of making every waterway in the US fishable, swimmable and drinkable. That was supposed to happen by 1985.

The report used data from industrial facilities that have to self-report pollutants to the EPA. Since the report relies on industry data, Craig said there could be other toxins in our waterways that aren’t accounted for.

Grace Vitaglione is a multimedia journalist, recently graduated from American University. I’m attracted to issues of inequity and my reporting has spanned racial disparities in healthcare, immigration detention and college culture. In the past, I’ve investigated ICE detainee deaths at the Investigative Reporting Workshop, worked on an award-winning investigative podcast and produced student-led video stories.