Riverkeeper addition Perkins to take new role on Catawba

Riverkeeper addition strong advocate for water testing

jmarks@lakewyliepilot.com June 25, 2012 

— Since seeing off its second Riverkeeper in David Merryman this past spring, the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation has had Executive Director Rick Gaskins taking on both roles. Now, he has some help.

Sam Perkins is now the director of technical programs for the nonprofit environmental group. For now, he’ll take on water testing and investigation, among other tasks. Eventually he’ll progress to “more and more” of Merryman’s former workload in the 5,000-square-mile river basin, Gaskins said. For now, Gaskins will continue to hold both titles.

“Rick Gaskins has been doing an unbelievable job serving as both executive director and Riverkeeper, and I am glad to be taking some of that off his shoulders,” Perkins said.

Here’s more about Perkins, a Charlotte native, UNC-Chapel Hill grad, former journalist and new addition to the foundation:

Q: When you’re not working on water issues, what are you doing? What are your hobbies, interests?

“When you work on water issues, you realize you’re always working with water issues because even the electricity we use requires immense quantities of water for cooling at power plants. I love to get out and play disc golf. Disc golf organizations and Charlotte’s parks and rec have together made the area a disc golfer’s dream. Additionally, I love to get up into the headwaters of the Catawba basin in the mountains to hike and just get out. My family is from the Asheville and Marion areas, so between frequent visits up there and having grown up in Charlotte (as well as six years in Greenville, S.C.; returned to Charlotte when I started ninth grade), I feel very at home in the basin from top to bottom.”

Q: What’s unique about the Catawba River? What will be unique challenges to the work you’ll be doing here?

“The Catawba River basin is unique in its development and setting. There are many inhabitants, but they are not as spread out as in eastern North Carolina. The development North Carolina has seen creates extreme sedimentation and contamination problems, but it also creates a vast and potent demand for electricity. This fact, combined with the relief and elevation change we have in the mountains and piedmont, make this basin immensely susceptible to ongoing and momentous problems that have the potential to be catastrophic.

The December 2008 coal ash pond spill in Tennessee was a $1 billion spill, and that was just for clean-up. And we don’t seem to have learned from that, likely because that location was not as inhabited, and it was during the winter. However, four of the 44 most hazardous coal ash ponds (as listed by the EPA) exist along the Catawba River, and when I say along, I mean ‘feet.’ And I say ‘the Catawba River,’ but really, it is Lake Wylie, Lake Norman and Mountain Island Lake, which are drinking water sources for hundreds of thousands of people. Two are along Lake Wylie (Allen Steam Station and Belews Creek Steam Station). If the dikes holding back the coal fail, no one will be able to touch Lake Wylie for years. But the dikes don’t even have to fail in a single major event. The pollutants, including multiple metals, leeched through the soil bottoms of these ponds are extremely hazardous to the environment. These contaminants bioaccumulate within fish and other organisms and then biomagnify up the food chain to the point where fish, such as bass, cannot be eaten and will come to have neurological issues that compromise their ability to reproduce.

The reason why this can be said to be a unique issue is that the southeastern United States still relies heavily on coal for electricity production. Other parts of the country have diversified their energy production portfolios with hydro, nuclear, wind, solar and other forms of energy that have energy production waste issues neither as prevalent nor as neglected as we have with coal ash and coal ash ponds.

This is essentially a problem of old infrastructure and old practices. The solutions of prevention are simple and, relative to disasters like that in Tennessee, extremely inexpensive. No one would ever allow nuclear waste or even a landfill to be built feet away from major drinking water supplies and contained only by earthen dikes. Yet, the issues of leeching and contamination are the same. That brings in the goal of the Catawba Riverkeeper, which is to empower, inform and educate the people who depend on that water for their businesses, their drinking water and their recreation.”

Q: What more can the community do to help with the type of work you’ll be doing? What type of participation will you need from community members, Covekeeper groups, etc.?

“The community includes individuals and businesses, both of which pay taxes to clean Catawba water, and they – as well as the local economy in general – depend upon that water for their livelihoods.

Support in any and every way helps. The CRF has so many volunteers that do so much work, the most visible of which is probably Riversweep, which will next occur in the late summer and early fall on various parts of the river and lakes to clean up trash. Thousands of volunteers gather remove tens of tons of trash per location. It’s a fun event, but it really makes one of the key issues – trash – tangible and really puts people in the mindset to think a bit more about the other issues affecting the waterways. The CRF relies on both donations and manpower to be able to operate some of our other programs.”

Q: What are the biggest water quality needs for the Catawba? Biggest points of emphasis?

“The local and state government monitoring agencies can only do so much given the number of people they have relative to the sites and area they must cover. That is why citizen involvement is so important. I realized during my own research that DENR and the USGS couldn’t adequately monitor water quality with the spatial and temporal resolution they needed in order to truly determine whether there was an issue. Thus, one of my goals is to engage the community in research that will deliver extensive, informative data from multiple sites and times that simply cannot be performed without manpower. The sort of help is especially true with regard to sedimentation, which will be one of the first projects I start working on. This problem is most obvious in the South Fork of the Catawba, where the sedimentation is accreting so quickly and continuously that boats will soon be unable to operate. And this is not simply a physical problem. Contaminants are able to essentially piggyback on sediment, transporting with it and, upon deposition, releasing into the water and becoming bioavailable.

Of course, even smaller pollution events, such as spills and even leaks of oil and sewage, need to be noted. We very much try to help people with documenting and reporting pollution on the lake. And if the proper authorities fail to the proper action, we will be there to hold them accountable. And if the current regulations and legislation is inadequate, we will help people make sure that their representative knows from them, their constituent, that there is a problem. Politicians often here plenty from national organizations that have an agenda, but – and they tell us this – no one is more important to hear from as their constituents.

I had a great meeting down at the Lake Wylie Covekeepers meeting Wednesday evening at T-Bones, and there were dozens of residents who are concerned, but the truth is that T-Bones should have lines out the door with concerned residents when there are Covekeeper meetings. It’s not just the ability to fish or to navigate the lake that depend upon the state of the Catawba – it’s also their property values and their local economies. No one wants to purchase lake front property if the lake is full of sediment and its fish are full of contaminants.”

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