State walks-back classifying Cape Fear River as swamp, city looks to continue water quality improvement effort

State walks-back classifying Cape Fear River as swamp, city looks to continue water quality improvement effort

WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - From coal ash spills to continued spikes in GenX and other PFAs, the Cape Fear River has had no shortage of issues over the last several years.

However, the city of Wilmington, Cape Fear River Watch and other advocates for the river are celebrating a win after the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality walked-back a 2015 effort to reclassify the lower end of the waterway as a swamp.

In 2015 under the Pat McCrory administration, NCDEQ sent a request to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to lower the classification of the Lower Cape Fear River to “swamp water” used primarily for industry and recreation.

While it may seem trivial, the classification of a waterway can have lasting, dramatic effects on water quality, said Cape Fear Riverkeeper Kemp Burdette.

The classifications the EPA uses set the standards for oxygenation as well as acceptable levels of heavy metals like copper, and the limits of what companies or water treatment systems can discharge.

“As you can imagine, industry doesn’t really like regulations that restrict the amount of a pollutant that they can put into a waterway,” Burdette said.

NCDEQ held a hearing on the item on Feb. 5, 2015, and submitted the request to the EPA later that year.

The request was submitted on behalf of the Lower Cape Fear River Program, a coalition of regional wastewater dischargers, municipalities and academics, who argued that the standards for standard saltwater were not acceptable for the Lower Cape Fear. They argued the river naturally displayed oxygen levels below the standard due to runoff.

Burdette said that was a misrepresentation of the data, because it did not take into account runoff from hog and poultry farms farther upstream.

It took years, but the EPA finally gave NCDEQ its answer: No.

However, just because the EPA denied the request didn’t automatically change the status of the Lower Cape Fear in the eyes of the state.

“What that meant was, yes the EPA had denied it, but what we wanted to do is to say, ‘Look, this thing has been denied, but as far as the state is concerned, the petition is still there,’” Burdette said.

The state Environmental Management Commission officially voted on July 10 to remove the classification of swamp water, effectively ending what Burdette and city officials called a “regulatory saga with as many twists and turns as the Cape Fear River itself.”

City Council member Paul Lawler, who was part of the group of local officials who pushed back on the classification, said this was a major win for the region.

“They listened to us," he said. "The government, state, feds, listened to what we had to say, and [to] a lot of other organizations that also objected. And they responded. Positively. And that’s good!”

While this closes the chapter on moving the classification down a peg, Lawler and Burdette said the goal now is to increase the Lower Cape Fear’s classification to one with more strict regulation.

“Water quality is critical to our quality of life, and critical to our economy, and critical to our health," Burdette said. "We would always be interested in trying to get waterways back to their best use.”

According to emails obtained by WECT, state officials want to respond to the change in classification by coming up with a new management plan for the river.

NCDEQ is expected to submit a request to the Environmental Management Commission in September.

The state estimates it will take about a year to conduct scientific analysis of the river and determine a strategy, and even longer for the new regulations to make their way through the General Assembly.

Still, Lawler says he and others are hopeful.

“For my entire lifetime, we’ve been cleaning up the Cape Fear River, and this is one more step on that," he said, "to make it a clean, attractive thing that we want to use.”

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