Riverkeeper: ‘DEQ sending message it’s essentially OK to pollute’

Environmental, Neuse River Watershed, Sound Rivers, Water Quality

Posted on May 30th, 2024

A red Fulcher's Point Pride Seafood fishing trawler can be seen in the background of this photo of Oriental Harbor.

The agency responsible for enforcing state environmental law has failed to hold a polluter accountable.

In March of 2022, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality issued notices of violation to Fulcher’s Point Pride Seafood for two incidents that occurred within days of one another. In the first, workers were observed grinding paint off of a docked vessel, the Chasity Brook, resulting in a sheet of paint chips and dust covering Oriental Harbor. The second happened in the middle of the Neuse River, when maintenance crew in hazmat suits were spotted doing the same thing on the fishing trawler Gaston Bell, creating a 75,000-square-foot debris field of paint and particulates in open water.

An anonymous source reported both incidents to Sound Rivers — including photos and video evidence of workers attempting to “sink” paint debris in the harbor using a hose. Sound Rivers staff alerted NCDEQ, and NCDEQ’s Division of Water Resources and Division of Air Quality investigated.

According to Neuse Riverkeeper Samantha Krop, that’s where the enforcement ended.

A crew member in protective gear was photographed grinding paint from the Gaston Bell, anchored in the Neuse River in February 2022.

“It’s been over a year since the last notice of violation was issued, and there is still no enforcement action — no civil penalty has been issued. The paperwork is sitting on a desk somewhere,” Samantha said. “Basically, the agency has sat on its hands and failed to enforce a penalty on this egregious violation.”

According to the Division of Water Resources assessment written in 2022, at least one of the violations was egregious: “The second violation appears to be willful given that Fulcher’s Seafood Inc. has been notified about the first violation, yet they still conducted another in-water boat maintenance with only the location changed.”

While a civil penalty of $21,588.98 was issued to Fulcher’s in March 2023, the name on all of the paperwork was incorrect. New notices of violation with the correct information were issued in June of 2023, however, the civil penalty has never been re-issued, so it remains unpaid. It’s unclear why no one has followed up in the past year, Samantha said.

“DEQ has failed to do their regulatory duty, whether through willful inaction or a lack of resources,” she said. “The problem in this situation is that DEQ is sending a message that it’s essentially OK to pollute — you can keep operating, business as usual, even if you’re a polluter.”

Paint chips and dust on the surface of Oriental Harbor in February 2022.

“Community members in Oriental are asking what’s going on,” Samantha said. “Fulcher’s demonstrated a reckless disregard for water quality in the Neuse River by knowingly and repeatedly putting toxic materials in the waterway, and there are a lot of people wondering why this is allowed to happen.”

Samantha said she will continue to look into why NCDEQ has not enforced the civil penalty.

Fulcher’s Point Pride Seafood is currently reapplying for a NPDES (National Pollution Discharge Elimination System) permit for its seafood packing/processing facility in Oriental. Written comments on Fulcher’s NPDES permit application will be accepted by the Division of Water Resources until June 30.

“They also have a history of violating the (NPDES) permit. There are a couple of incidents when their discharge did not meet required water-quality thresholds, and there are regulatory reports from DEQ that note late and missing records,” Samantha said.

View the DWR notice of intent to issue a wastewater permit here.

View the draft permit here.

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