The Dead Zones of Chatham County

Recently, a friend emailed me a story about the growing Dead Zones in our oceans around the world. There are 146 to be exact. So what’s a Dead Zone?.

A Dead Zone is an area in the coastal ocean where fish and bottom dwelling creatures have been wiped out because of pollution that leaves the ecosystem devoid of oxygen. One of the worst is in the Gulf of Mexico. A quote this week from the Associated Press reveals that: “The zone off Louisiana reached a record 7,900 square miles in 2002. A recent estimate from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Louisiana State University shows the zone, which has been monitored for about 25 years, could exceed 8,800 square miles this year, an area roughly the size of New Jersey.”
It is believed that Dead Zones are caused by tons of excessive petro-chemical agricultural fertilizers that wash from farmlands into rivers and streams and are delivered to river deltas all over the world. The scientific word for this phenomenon is hypoxia. Combine that with herbicides, pesticides, pharmaceuticals and other sources of pollution and you start to see what we’re up against.

So, what does this have to do with Chatham County?

Chatham County, like municipalities all over the world is creating its own Dead Zones in our rivers and lakes. The Rocky, Deep and Haw Rivers and Jordan Lake are dying slow deaths right before our very eyes in the same way that burgeoning Dead Zones are killing our oceans.
Take the Rocky River for example. Commonly, the summer months bring life-smothering algae blooms along its length. These blooms are blamed not only on agricultural chemicals that leach from farmlands, but also on high nutrient waste coming from Siler City’s Waste Water Treatment Plant. During low water flows, most of the water below Siler City is treated sewage water returned to the river.
Additionally, documented reports from the recent past have shown that the Siler City WWTP has been a frequent and persistent polluter of the Rocky River. The Conservation Council of North Carolina calls the Siler City WWTP a “chronic violator.”
This year Siler City’s Water Treatment Plant was fined for dumping raw sludge into the river. This is a flagrant violation of the Clean Water Act for which the state fined Siler City a paltry $6,000. Furthermore, Siler City has the audacity to ask permission from the state to continue this desecration until they can pipe the sludge to the WWTP. A public comment period is now open for citizens to weigh in on the matter. This is ample proof that it’s cheaper to pollute than to obey the law. If state environmental officials had any back bone at all, they’d require Siler to truck the sludge to the WWTP instead of permitting more illegal dumping.

The most revealing information about the Rocky River is, however, that mussels which once cleaned the river and supported a diverse ecosystem can no longer be found. A minnow, the Cape Fear Shiner, is found in ever dwindling numbers in few locations. The river’s defense against continual poisoning is collapsing.

So, is this just another scary environmental story that will shock us for a moment and then be relegated to the back burner as we struggle to make a living and get through the day? Before you allow that to happen, please consider this.

I would liken what we’re doing to the game of Jenga. Jenga is a game in which players remove blocks from a tower and put them on top. The player who causes the tower to collapse loses.

As we demand more than our local life support systems can give, we destabilize and threaten their ability to keep us alive. As with Jenga, the structure looks okay—until it collapses. This isn’t just some abstract “environmental problem.” We are challenging the ability of our life-support systems to nurture life in the Piedmont.
If you think the Environmental Protection Agency is going to keep you safe, think again. Starved of funding, the EPA, for all intents and purposes is too weak to act. North Carolina environmental agencies aren’t much better.
Another case in point: the new rules proposed for cleaning up Jordan Lake have been challenged by Greensboro and Burlington. Why? Because these cities refuse to spend the money to clean up their discharges in order to maintain a healthy Haw River. In defiance of sound scientific evidence their stingy intransigence forces downstream users to drink and bathe in water of degraded quality.

Because of these challenges the rules must now be hashed out by the legislature. What we’re likely to get from that process is protection with all the vitality of a terminal cancer patient.

If you care what happens to the water we’re forced to drink, call Rep. Joe Hackney and Sen. Bob Atwater and demand that they stand up for the preservation of the once-pristine, divinely created systems that keep us alive!

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