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Sunday, May 26, 2024

Multiple tri-county water bodies among DEQ’s 2024 draft impaired list

The Department of Environmental Quality’s draft impaired waters list includes a fish consumption advisory for arsenic for Burnt Mill Creek. (Courtesy Shea Carver)

SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — The North Carolina Division of Water Resources is accepting public comment on the state’s draft list of impaired water bodies, including many tri-county waters from past years as well as several new entries.

READ MORE: ‘Most degraded watershed in the county’ to be restored with green infrastructure

A new portion of the Cape Fear River has been added to the 2024 list of impaired waters, released every two years by the Department of Environmental Quality. 

Other portions of the Cape Fear River, such as the portions from Greenfield Creek to Barnards Creek and from Mott Creek to Snows Cut, have been included previously due to issues such as copper and dissolved oxygen, which can harm aquatic life and is often caused by large algal blooms.

This year the Northeast Cape Fear River in New Hanover and Pender counties from N.C. 210 to Prince George Creek has been added. 

Department of Environmental Quality public information officer Laura Olieniacz told PCD it is due to a 2021 fish consumption advisory from the state Department of Health and Human Services. 

DHHS found elevated levels of arsenic, mercury, and hexavalent chromium in bowfin and bluegill in waterways near Riverside Park Community Building in Castle Hayne. DHHS recommends eating bluegill once per week at most and avoiding bowfin consumption due to the contaminants. 

Section 303(d) of the 1972 Clean Water Act requires states to submit a list of water bodies impaired or threatened from designated uses — such as shellfish farming or fishing — to the Environmental Protection Agency every two years. Impairment can be caused by a diverse range of substances, from excessive sediment and bacteria to industrial pollution.

The Northeast Cape Fear River joins others in the tri-county region from past listings, including Greenfield Lake, Sturgeon Creek, Hewletts Creek, Pages Creek, Brunswick River, Dutchman’s Creek, Whiskey Creek, Montgomery Slough, Calabash River and more. The water bodies have a range of issues causing debilitation, such as fecal coliform, copper, pH, and arsenic.

Burnt Mill Creek has been listed for benthos contamination since 1998, but the 2024 draft has new parameters for 4.6 miles of the waterway connecting to Smith Creek. 

The 2021 DHHS fish consumption advisory found bowfin, bluegill, and catfish have elevated levels of arsenic, hexavalent chromium, and mercury. DHHS warns against eating bowfin due to the substances and recommends limiting bluegill and catfish consumption to once per week.

“We really shouldn’t be eating those,” Larry Cahoon, a UNCW biological oceanographer and limnologist, told Port City Daily. Cahoon noted the advisory is targeted to vulnerable demographics such as children under five and women of childbearing age.

“Some folks here in the chemistry department have been working on the arsenic part of that,” he said. “And it’s not real clear where that stuff is coming from.”

Cahoon said he was reluctant to blame the controlled animal feeding operation industry, but noted arsenical compounds were formerly used in poultry feed and there is a time lag in runoff of substances into rivers. 

He said arsenic can be also found in coal ash, which was discharged by Duke Energy’s Sutton Plant near U.S. 421, which the company has worked to clean in recent years.

Kemp Burdette, designated as Cape Fear River Watch’s Riverkeeper, said the original Clean Water Act’s purpose was to include a plan of action to rehabilitate impaired water bodies, but believes the lobbying power of discharging industries has prevented sufficient action. He cited the Clean Water Act’s stormwater agriculture exemption, which limits regulation of NC’s hog and poultry industries, as an example.

He noted “total maximum daily loads” (TMDLs) are a method the EPA recommends for testing contamination — the amount of pollution each water body can contain while still meeting water quality standards — as a method to identify pollution sources and methods to clean them.

“What happens in reality is very different from that,” he said.

“Nobody has taken that next critical step of implementing a TMDL because it impacts industry,” Burdette added. “And industry doesn’t want to lose money because they have to pay to treat their waste.”

New Hanover County’ soil and water conservation director Dru Harrison told PCD she didn’t believe TMDLs were necessary for clean-up efforts; the county reached out after press to clarify it’s not anti-TMDL or monitoring.

“When you have a TMDL it’s basically the states and the feds pushing you and saying you have to do it now,” Harrison said. “The city and the county are both proactive in trying to clean things up before they are made to have a TMDL.” 

Harrison said the county and city focus on nonpoint source pollution, referring to diffuse or cumulative sources of water body impairment. She described the “big six” as fertilizer, pesticides, litter, sediment, contaminants from automotives, and animal waste.

“Right now, Page’s Creek is our focus,” she said. “And we have completed that watershed restoration plan to set us to apply for grant money to install things to help reduce pollution.”

Point source pollution — referring to single, identifiable contaminants such as PFAS — is meant to be regulated by the state, which Burdette believes have been insufficient. 

The Environmental Management Commission is an appointed body that oversees and creates rules for DEQ, including criteria used to determine impaired water bodies. It does not currently have surface water standards for PFAS, although the DEQ has proposed adding several compounds to the list in recent years

Brunswick County also had three water bodies added in 2024. In the Lumber River Basin, 2.2 miles of Leonard Branch river connecting to Juniper Creek joined due to fecal coliform and Lockwoods Folly River from Royal Oak Swamp to SR 1200 due to dissolved oxygen. Shallotte River from U.S. Hwy 17 to Mill Pond was also included because of dissolved oxygen.

DWR staff will accept public comments on the list until April 26. Comments must be submitted no later than midnight April 26 by email to: 

For specific listing questions, or to request an assessment fact sheet for a specific waterbody, email Cam McNutt, water quality data coordinator, at 

After the public comment period, North Carolina and other states will submit the list to the Environmental Protection Agency. 

Tips or comments? Email journalist Peter Castagno at

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