Cape Fear River Watch: Advocating for a Bright Future for North Carolina’s Largest Watershed

“Support from the Orton Foundation allows Cape Fear River Watch to aggressively fight pollution associated with unsustainable factory farms throughout the watershed. This work is improving the Cape Fear River for all North Carolinians; strengthening our environment, our economy, and our quality of life”  – Kemp Burdette, Cape Fear Riverkeeper

In this month of March Madness (Go Tar Heels!), as we play out our #MooreRivers and #MooreWaters focus, let’s circle back to The Cape Fear River.

The Cape Fear River system is the largest in North Carolina: it encompasses a 9,000-square-mile basin that includes streams flowing within 29 of the state’s 100 counties. With Greensboro, Burlington, Chapel Hill, Sanford, Fayetteville, Dunn, Clinton, Warsaw, Burgaw, Wilmington and many other municipalities situated within its boundaries, its basin has become one of the most industrialized regions in North Carolina: nearly a third of the state’s population rely on the river and its tributaries for freshwater, transportation, recreation, natural habitats for abundant wildlife species, and other uses. The Cape Fear Estuary—a 35-mile section of the river between Wilmington and the Atlantic Ocean, part of which forms a section of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, features saline waters critical to habitats and breeding grounds for many animals, including fish, crabs, and shrimp.

With all of these pressures, and so much at stake, Louis Bacon and The Moore Charitable Foundation’s North Carolinian affiliate The Orton Foundation are very grateful that one organization in particular acts as a watchdog and advocate for this mighty but stressed river. Gumboots on the ground and in concert with partners such as the Southern Environmental Law Center and the NC Coastal Federation, Cape Fear River Watch (CFRW) loves this body of water perhaps more than any of us. Riverkeeper Kemp Burdette is at the helm.

A member of Waterkeeper Alliance, CFRW’s mandate is as follows:

  • Education. CFRW organizes environmental seminars covering issues affecting the Lower Cape Fear River Basin. They encourage working internships for students and offer water-quality education programs to schools, civic groups, developers, homeowner associations and others. They provide storm water management training for local government staff.
  • Advocacy: Riverkeeper and Riverwatch members work on water quality related issues such as stopping heavy industrial pollution, concentrated animal feeding operations or CAFOs (elaborated below), and fish restoration in the Cape Fear River.
  • Action: CFRW encourages participation on and in the river, from paddling to cleaning up, to monitoring water quality and conduct research.

A Focus on CAFOs:

By documenting and showcasing the illegal pollution associated with factory farms throughout the Cape Fear Basin, CFRW is forcing factory farms to improve their practices. This is critical work because there are more CAFOs in the Cape Fear River Basin than any other place on Earth, resulting in over 5 million hogs, 16 million turkeys, and 300 million chickens produced annually in the region. The enormous amounts of pollution discharge from both swine and poultry CAFOs contain nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, heavy metals such as copper, toxic gases including methane, hydrogen-sulfide and ammonia and deadly bacteria and viruses such as MRSA and salmonella.

Despite extensive evidence demonstrating significant contributions of nutrient and bacterial pollution from CAFOs to public waters, the state if North Carolina has failed to uphold its delegated responsibilities under the Clean Water Act. Out of the over 2,000 swine CAFOs in North Carolina, only 14 have been required to obtain a Clean Water Act permit, while the majority operate under a State General Permit that wrongly assumes that all pollution is contained on-site. In truth it leaches into the water table, is sprayed onto field polluting the air and properties of communities, and has widespread devastating effects on people, air and water.

Through group water sampling, ongoing legal cases, and committed collaboration with other partners, CFRW’s work has resulted in cleanup efforts at these facilities. As well, CFRW educates and organizes communities in order to keep new slaughterhouse operations out of the Cape Fear Basin.

We encourage readers to learn more about Cape Fear River Watch here.

The Southern Environmental Law Center: Championing the Lower Cape Fear River – Issue 1: Titan America

The lower Cape Fear River region of North Carolina is an historic and natural treasure, and one of its most fervent champions is the Southern Environment Law Center in North Carolina. Louis Bacon and The Orton Foundation proudly support their tireless work to protect the air quality, water quality, and natural resources of the area. In three consecutive posts this week, we showcase the key issues they are addressing specifically.


Titan America has proposed building the country’s fourth largest cement plant near Wilmington, NC. This plant would destroy nearly 1,000 acres of wetlands and would be a major new source of mercury pollution in the Northeast Cape Fear River, endangering and degrading the health of the beaches, rivers, natural resources, and quality of life for the Wilmington community.

Not only has Titan America avoided public disclosure and evaded a comprehensive review of environmental health effects, but the construction of this plant would set a precedent of allowing Titan to bypass laws and ignore environmental regulations.

The Southern Environmental Law Center is fighting to prevent construction of the proposed Titan Plant by using the law to expose environmental and health threats. Through several interrelated lawsuits, SELC has challenged the plant’s state air-quality permits that failed the state’s legal responsibly to protect people from avoidable harm by not requiring the proposed plant to reduce its pollution to the maximum extent possible. They have also filed written legal arguments and responses to briefs filed by Titan America and the state of North Carolina that highlight the excessively high levels of pollution allowed by state regulators and the potential health impacts on Cape Fear area.

An uphill battle remains – both in terms of addressing Titan’s shifting strategies and additional lawsuits, and also because the state itself is stymying citizen access to the court. It is, for instance, seeking to block the SELC’s challenge to the air permit. If this succeeds, the government will try to use it as a precedent in future cases to limit citizen’s ability to challenge the state’s decisions.

We urge our readers to pay attention to this issue. Read more here, and stay tuned for more about the SELC’s work in North Carolina tomorrow.