Viewpoint

When our river turns toxic, we need public officials to offer protection

Human, livestock and other waste flowed into the Cape Fear River after Hurricane Florence. Policymakers need to make some changes.
Human, livestock and other waste flowed into the Cape Fear River after Hurricane Florence. Policymakers need to make some changes. Earthjustice via AP

From an editorial Tuesday in the Fayetteville Observer:

Hurricane Florence turned the Cape Fear River into more of an open sewer than it already was. The heavy rains and flooding added human waste, livestock waste, industrial waste, petrochemical runoff and other hazardous substances to a river that was already profoundly compromised by the waste streams that were somehow allowed by law.

The extent of the river pollution raises serious public policy questions that need to be addressed. It is urgent and procrastination should be punishable by losses at the polls.

We’ve heard a great deal about the problems caused by massive amounts of animal waste from the pork and poultry industries, which annually raise millions of hogs and tens of millions of chickens and turkeys in this region. Both use primitive technology for waste disposal and have been reluctant to upgrade to safer disposal solutions that are readily available but more expensive than old fashioned open cesspools and piles of poultry litter.

Tighter regulation is needed and some of those factory farms need to be moved to higher ground. Gov. Roy Cooper’s proposed Florence relief package includes funding for farm buyouts and relocations.

These problems turn out to be only one part of the danger we face. Even more contaminants were released into the Cape Fear and its tributaries by sources we had previously believed to be under control: our municipal sewer systems.

As an Observer story reported Sunday, nearly 40 million gallons of untreated sewage was discharged into the river basin after Florence struck, as municipal sewer systems were unable to cope with the flooding. According to state records, the raw or partially treated sewage was spilled from systems from Greensboro down to New Hanover County.

It should be clear to all our regulators and public officials that we need to invest in our sewage-treatment facilities to prevent this kind of toxic release in future storms. It’s going to cost money, but considering the public health risks, we don’t have much choice.

We hope elected leaders finally see the fruits of their myopic labor and establish reasonable safeguards for public health and safety. It’s an election year and Florence is a fresh wound for many NC residents. If the politicians don’t act, we expect the voters will.

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