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South By Southeast: 18 Environmental Journalists Travel North Carolina

A picture of a woman photographing a beach house on stilts.
Eric Mennel

I moved to North Carolina last July. I moved to Durham. Directly to Durham. Did not pass go. Did not collect $200. And for all intents and purposes, I’ve stayed in Durham.  What I’ve known of life outside the Triangle has been limited to Instagram photos from vacationing friends (#OBX #Sunrise) and the occasional press release on highway construction (#NC12FeetBelowSeaLevel).

Then, last week, I had the opportunity to travel the eastern half of the state – from the Triangle to the barrier islands – with a group of science and environmental journalists. It was organized by The Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources. Some of the group was local, writing for the N&O or the Greensboro News and Record. Others came from the Dallas Morning News, The State in Columbia, SC, or Discover. Some were fresh out of journalism school while others had been at the game as long as climate change has been a thing. (Talked about as a thing, that is.)

But, whatever our lot, we were all given the same opportunity; an overarching view of the people and places in this state that can be overlooked in traditional news coverage. From its lakes, to its farmlands, to its swamps and dunes, the landscape of North Carolina tells an intensely emotional story, pulling at so many of the strings that tie its inhabitants together. These are just a few of those stories.

Transformers: Toxins in Disguise

Our first stop was in Raleigh, at the Ward Transformer Superfund Site.
Until 2006, Ward Transformer was a company that, as its name suggests, repaired transformers – giant machines that regulate the flow of electricity between even more giant machines. Next door to Raleigh-Durham International Airport, the company began dumping its waste in a less than environmentally friendly way (#understatement). In fact, a couple of employees went so far as to load up a truck with the toxic by-product, drive through neighboring counties, and spray the chemicals on the dirt roads there.

Ward Transformer, Superfund
Credit Eric Mennel / WUNC
Gina Monroy is an engineer who's been working with the EPA to level and restore the former Ward Transformer site. It's unclear what the lot will be suitable for after cleanup.

In 2003, the Environmental Protection Agency placed Ward Transformer on its National Priorities List, including it among the most polluted sites in the country. After the company was forced to end operations in 2006, the EPA began the cleanup process. Essentially, most of the dirt in this 11 acre lot needed to be dug up, put through an incinerator, and covered with new, nutrient rich soil. Years of work, digging, burning, burying. Digging, burning, burying.
All in all, more than 400,000 tons of dirt has been cleared of contaminants in the past six years.

Credit Eric Mennel / WUNC
PCBs (Polychlorinated Biphenyls) were chemicals used in manufacturing from the 1920s to 1970s. They've made the fish in Little Briar Creek unsafe for human consumption.

Those contaminants (PCBs) also accumulated in the local fish population, leading to a “Do Not Eat” ban on fish in Briar Creek and Lake Crabtree, as well as their connecting waterways. While that ban might not mean much for most of you reading this, the facts is that those waterways and those fish served as a main source of protein for the low-income Hispanic population in the area. Advocacy groups continue to do outreach, trying to convince these sustenance fishers to keep away from those sources, but you can only monitor so much.

Three Thousand Little Pig Farms

No doubt – riding several hundred miles on a motor coach bus (as our group did) comes with plenty of discomfort. But as difficult as it might be to resist using the onboard bathroom between Kinston and Beaufort, it’s certainly no CAFO.

North Carolina is home to nearly nine million pigs. There are roughly 3,000 registered swine farms in the state, many of those being CAFOs (Concentrate Animal Feeding Operations). They line the roads of Duplin and Sampson counties, hangers filled with thousands of pigs, raised in the most economically efficient if morally controversial ways.
A single pig can produce 14 lbs of manure a day. That’s 2.5 tons per pig, per year.
A single pig can produce 14 lbs of manure a day. That's 2.5 tons per pig, per year.

In 2007, the state placed a permanent moratorium on new hog farm construction (a lack of regulatory enforcement left gallons of pig waste leaking into various waterways, or being sprayed as manure into the air – a practice not necessarily problematic, if done properly. But it isn’t always done properly).

Recently there was an outbreak of PED (Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea)in the state. Big news and we covered it here at WUNC. Because of this, we weren’t able to visit a CAFO. But we did get to visit this small, adorable, all-natural hog, beef, and poultry farm. I don't want to anthropomorphize and imply these animals are "happier" then the majority of our pork, which is raised in packed enclosures. I'll just let you look at a wicked cute picture and leave it at that.

Pigs on a Farm
Credit Eric Mennel / WUNC
Naturally raised pigs at Nooherooka Natural in Snow Hill, NC.

NC-12 Feet Below Sea Level

The highlight of the trip was likely at the lowest elevation. While a nor’easter isn’t usually the best weather for a trip to the Outer Banks, for a bunch of environmental journalist it was like having Jane Goodall drop by for lunch.

As you head south on NC12 from Nags Head to Hatteras, DOT bulldozers line the road, scooping up sand and placing it atop manmade barriers – the only thing between high tide and the passing traffic. It feels like an infrastructure plan designed by a six-year-old with a beach shovel, but it may also be the only viable option.

Bonner Bridge, NC 12
Credit Eric Mennel / WUNC
Linda Marsa, a contributing editor at Discover, photographs Pea Island. Crews continue repairs on the Bonner Bridge in the background.

Entering Mirlo Beach (where the motto is “Dare to Dream the Impossible Dream") houses on the Atlantic coast are falling into the ocean. The sand there is eroding at a rate of 14 feet per year. Most of those homes are owned by out-of-towners, people who bought the home on a day when the weather was nice, and the tide was low.

Questions about sea level rise are touchy on these islands. Everyone we encountered said they believed it was occurring (it’s hard not to when the water is rushing over your only way out of town), but they didn’t believe retreating was a realistic option for them. They have a history with these lands. And no one can say exactly when that history might succumb to the ocean. So for now, it’s about finding the right sized bandage.

NC 12
Credit Eric Mennel / WUNC
The group of journalists walk an artificial barrier, meant to keep the ocean from washing over NC-12 at high tide. On the left, NCDOT bulldozers work to clear the road of sand.

Of course, all of these issues are more complex then could possibly be laid out in one web post after a week of discussion. And many of you reading hold a much deeper knowledge of these stories than I could gather in that time. But I think it’s important to remember how disconnected many of us are from this place we rather affectionately call home.
We can hike the trails of Appalachia, or lay still on the banks of Mattamuskeet, surrounded by the sounds of migrating geese. We can wade the coast of Rodanthe or partake of the sweet potatoes pulled from the Old North’s breadbasket.
But it seems rather important that we keep conscious of the lands from which these resources originate. The way the people of Hatteras lift up their heritage, not as a shield against a rising tide, but as a welcome mat to those who might not truly understand the complexity of where they are. Not just conservation for conservation’s sake. But to simply  make North Carolina a nice place to be. A place to be proud of, filled with people worth celebrating.

Kill Devil Hills Shoreline
Credit Eric Mennel / WUNC
Obligatory early-morning shot of the shoreline in Kill Devil Hills.

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