Posted: May 4, 2021 at 4:08 pm

HF Lee Coal Ash Spill 10.17.16. Photo by Waterkeeper Alliance Inc.

We are thrilled to announce the return of our Spotlight segment!

As our Swim Guide Affiliate program continues to grow, we would like to share the exciting and diverse work that other affiliates in the community do with all of you.

For this Swim Guide Spotlight, we reached out to Matthew Starr from the Upper Neuse Riverkeeper to hear their work on the river.

Upper Neuse Riverkeeper affiliate profile

Where: North Carolina, U.S.

Number of regions: 2

Number of sites: 36

Sampling season: Year-round

Sampling frequency: Once a week

Swim Guide Affiliate since: 2018

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Or: Tell me about yourself and your relationship with the Upper Neuse River.

Matthew: My name is Matthew Starr and I am the Upper Neuse Riverkeeper. I was born and raised in the Neuse River Basin, which has always been my home. I’m based in Raleigh, which is the state capital. This is where my wife and I live and raise our three kids.

Come next month,I will be holding this position for 9 years. It’s really awesome. As you know, no two days are the same in the life of a Riverkeeper

Or: How did you start working for the river?

Matthew: I did an internship over 10 years ago, with what then was the Neuse Riverkeeper Foundation. A handful of years ago, The Neuse Riverkeeper Foundation merged with the Pamlico Riverkeeper Foundation and that’s what created Sound Rivers, where I work today. I’ve always got to add a plug-in for internships—they pay off!

Or: They sure do. Could you tell me about your watershed?

Matthew: I’m biased of course, but The Neuse River is a very cool body of water. It flows for almost 250 miles, from the Piedmont (the central part of North Carolina) to the coast. From there, it empties into the Pamlico Sound, where it becomes the widest river in the United States.

The Neuse River passes through both urban and rural areas. It’s a fairly flat, slow-moving river. You can put in a kayak or canoe and kind of just leisurely float down the river.

You can see dolphins and bull sharks swim up the mouth of the river, or other fish such as striped bass or shad all the way up the river.

Like I said I’m quite biased, but it’s a fun, enjoyable river.

Or: What are the main concerns for your water?

Matthew: The Neuse River is in the central part of the state. It flows through Wake County, in which the city of Raleigh is located. The pollution begins right at the headwaters of the river.

Our main issues are caused by water runoff, whether that’s through the stormwater runoff from an urban setting or agricultural runoff from a rural setting. Solving the stormwater runoff issues throughout the entire river basin is our key priority.

We also have some point source pollution problems in the form of coal ash, which can be found in the middle of the river.

Or: I’d like to hear more about coal ash in a moment, but first, would you elaborate on how you address the issue of runoff?

Matthew: Runoff brings pollutants into the river, and fixing the problem can create a huge financial burden on both the city and riverkeepers. Instead of relying on costly solutions, we are harnessing nature’s ability to prevent contaminated water from entering the river in the first place.

Our goal is to let the runoff water seep into the soil and allow for the artificially added nutrients or pollution to be taken up by plants or filtered out through the soil before it enters the river.

We build up the soil around the river, using cover crops and no-till practices. The soil is able to clean our water for us, instead of just flushing everything off the land and putting it into the rivers. This way, we are creating a more resilient system that can withstand floods and keep pollutants out of the river.

Or: I see, yes, creating a natural ecosystem that is more resilient would be a much more sustainable solution. Let’s get back to coal ash. What is that exactly?

Matthew: Cole ash is the by-product from coal combustion power plants. After they burn the coal, the leftover ash contains heavy metals that are very toxic.

In the fifties and sixties, these power plants were located along rivers because they needed lots of fresh water to cool the combustion process. To get rid of this by-product, power plant workers dug holes in the ground and filled them with this toxic soup of coal ash and water. These old deposits of coal ash are a source of pollution in the Neuse River. We’re talking literal tons and tons and tons of coal ash.

We periodically get very severe hurricanes in North Carolina that causes the coal ash to spill into the river. We’ve documented these events. It was particularly bad during Hurricane Matthew and Hurricane Florence. There was a lot of heavy metal contamination being spilled into our river.

Or: And how do you address this issue?

Matthew: We sued the ones responsible! The citizens of North Carolina said, “Enough’s enough.” We took Duke Energy (who is in charge of the power plants) to court and forced them to clean the river.

They’re going to have to come in with heavy machinery and excavate the coal ash. It is going to be a long process, but they will have to do it. Whether they recycle it or put it into a landfill, the point is to get it out of the water and stop it from harming our communities.

Or: I see that Neuse Riverkeeper does educational activities as well. Could you tell me more about your educational activities?

Matthew: I have to say that the Swim Guide program is probably the best educational tool that we have, because it makes it easy for people to understand the condition of the water in the river. Swim Guide really showed people that we need to address these water issues.

Education creates advocacy. We have over 6,000 square miles in our watershed, so there’s no way that we can do everything that needs to be done without having advocates throughout the communities to talk about the importance of clean water. Swim Guide really allows that to happen.

Or: I would like the record to show that I am not paying you to say this, but I am really happy that the Swim Guide helps. On a lighter note, what would you say is your river’s secret?

Matthew: The biggest secret is that the river is accessible. We live in a city or in a county with a million people and a lot of them have no idea how accessible the river is. You don’t have to go somewhere else to enjoy a beautiful river. It’s here, it’s in your backyard, it’s in your community, and it’s accessible right now. I would say that’s the biggest secret.

Or: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Matthew: You know, I’ve been doing this a number of years. I realize that most of my thoughts or interviews are fairly depressing (laughs). However, there’s hope, and not only hope, there’s also a path forward. A clean river is not something that is unattainable. It’s not like you have to choose between a vibrant economy and a healthy environment. These things go hand-in-hand, and when one improves the other improves.

Some of these issues seem like, “Holy cow how are we going to fix these?” There are things that we can do now, though. We don’t need a new invention or a new scientific breakthrough. The answers are here. We just have to create a system that allows for those answers to take place.

Whether that’s redoing the federal Farm Bill to allow for regenerative agricultural practices or getting municipalities to invest in green stormwater infrastructure, the answers are here and we can do this now, we just need to create a system that allows it to happen.

Or: I couldn’t agree more, that is a very hopeful massage. Sign me up!

Matthew: This has been quite enjoyable. I appreciate you reaching out. I’ve enjoyed our chat.

Or: Likewise thank you so much for your time and all the work you do for the Neuse River. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Clay Barberfor making the introduction as well.

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* The RBC Foundation

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