The Cape Fear River watershed takes in water from parts of 27 counties, including Orange County — meaning trash from Chapel Hill can make its way to Wilmington.
Elaine Chiosso, a riverkeeper for the Haw River in Orange County, said industrial sludge in the river is a major problem. Tests on the Cane Creek reservoir, which serves Chapel Hill, have indicated the effects of this runoff.
North Carolina’s environmental shortcomings have become increasingly apparent since coal ash from a Duke Energy site spilled into the Dan River last year.
“Just this past month, Duke and the state agency entered into yet another sweetheart deal. This is to protect Duke against the consequences of its groundwater contamination from coal ash,” said Frank Holleman, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “That’s the latest demonstration of how Duke and the state agency have not done the right thing by our rivers and our groundwater.”
While legislative action is needed, he said initiatives like Clean Jordan Lake are helpful for clearing immediate trash and raising awareness.
Saturday’s event drew a diverse crowd, including volunteers from UNC’s Graduate and Professional Student Federation looking to give back to Chapel Hill, like Anginelle Alabanza.
“I think graduate students forget that it’s really important that we need to be doing this kind of service,” she said. “So it’s nice that people volunteered to do this so early in the morning.”
Even for younger volunteers “dragged” by parents, the purpose of the event was not lost.
“I’ve been boating out here with a couple of my friends before,” said Sid Rush, a teenager brought by his father. “And you drive past and see the amount of trash that has piled on the shoreline and it’s kind of amazing how much stuff shows up.”
DiGiano said groups like Keep Durham Beautiful, Durham SustainAbility and El Centro Hispano have also been involved in educating and getting youth involved environmentally.
“Anybody who spends hours on a Saturday cleaning up a stream comes away from that as a dedicated supporter of protecting that stream and all streams,” Holleman said.
But Holleman said ultimately, the legislature’s efforts to protect the environment have not been sufficient.
“Well, there hasn’t been any positive legislation,” he said. “In the past several years it’s been one backward step after another.”
Regulations protecting the environment have been thoughtlessly slashed in supposedly business-friendly moves, and that the net effect actually hurts North Carolina’s economy, Holleman said.
“What makes the state so attractive to businesspeople, entrepreneurs and retirees are the beautiful natural resources of the state,” he said.
Holleman said the Environmental Protection Agency has indicated coal ash sites are producing more than half the toxins in rivers and lakes in the U.S. and are a major threat to the state’s natural systems.
“We are, in effect, having a coal ash spill at 14 different sites across the state, in almost river system in the state,” he said.
DiGiano said it’s up to the state to fulfill the federal government’s standards.
How North Carolina takes care of its environment is an indication of its values and its ability to see the big picture, Holleman said.
“An essential way, an absolutely critical way, to protect our environment is through good laws and standards,” he said. “And they won’t be enforced unless citizens are involved directly in insisting they be enforced and passed.”
But simple things like raising awareness — like Mr. Trash and the Clean Jordan Lake Team — and not littering will go a long way, DiGiano said.
“When (lake visitors) see trash and they come back next time and it’s clean, maybe they’ll say somebody must have been here to take care of this,” he said. “Our presence is important to show that somebody cares.”
Dennis Rush, Sid Rush’s father and an attendee at the event, said people should care about what is around them.
“There’s lots of stuff to do everywhere,” he said. “If legislators want to go and take care of problems I don’t mind, but I’ll take care of the ones in my own backyard.”