As a child in the 1980s, Crystal Cavalier-Keck spent summer days inside her grandmother’s classroom at Haw River Elementary School. At lunch, they would ride in her Oldsmobile down to the river, which bisected Main Street in the eponymous town in Alamance County. Nearby stood Granite Mill, a 19th-century brick complex which at its peak a few years earlier finished more corduroy than any other factory in the world.

“Water is part of everything,” Cavalier-Keck’s grandmother would tell her. “Take care of what God has given you.” Then the matriarch would point out the foul smell. “You can always look at the water,” she warned. “But you can’t get in it, because it’s very poisonous.”

The Haw, which rolls through many of the Piedmont’s historic manufacturing towns and includes the Jordan Lake reservoir, faced a triple threat back then: toxic chemicals; harmful sediment from farms and construction sites; and nutrients from fertilizer and laundry detergent, which feed oxygen-depleting algae. 

“Those pollution problems which the Haw is experiencing are, quite literally, carried forward into the Lake,” a 1984 Legislative Research Commission report reads. “Unless remedied and reversed,” it warns, “the assured end result is the [lake’s] algal choked death.”

Almost four decades later, the Haw lures whitewater paddlers and the shuttered mills have become apartments with granite countertops and kayak storage. An annual festival draws crowds to its banks for guided walks, canoe rides, live music, and a puppet parade. In a tangible sense, the waterway has come back to life. “We have a really healthy ecosystem in a lot of sections,” said Emily Sutton, who leads anti-pollution efforts as the Riverkeeper for the non-profit Haw River Assembly. 

But the Haw’s trajectory has been a zigzag of progress and setback. Alongside its resurrection, new threats have emerged. Industrial chemicals like per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and 1,4-Dioxane have contaminated drinking water supplies. The region’s growth has sparked forest clearing and large-scale development. A proposed natural gas pipeline could cross numerous streams in the watershed.

Meanwhile, the legislature’s warning about Jordan Lake proved prescient: the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) says Jordan Lake has been nutrient-saturated and oxygen-starved for nearly 40 years.

The Haw and its watershed have been the subject of legal maneuvers, regulations, political battles, investigations, enforcement actions, and settlements. Progress has been, at best, incremental. 

Cavalier-Keck, a citizen of the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation, wondered what more could be done to place the river’s interests first. So she launched an organizing effort based on a strategy she learned from other Indigenous leaders: a movement to grant the Haw its own independent, inalienable legal rights to “abundant, pure, clean, unpolluted water.” 

Cavalier-Keck and her allies want state legislators to pass a law allowing any North Carolinian to sue a polluter or a government agency on the river’s behalf. She acknowledges it’s a longshot. While the American legal tradition grants rights to corporations, it has traditionally not done so for rivers. 

“Western law treats nature as property,” said Thomas Linzey, senior legal counsel for the Center for Democratic and Environmental Rights, a non-profit that promotes a right-of-nature legal strategy. “Property is a bundle of rights, and part of that bundle of rights is the authority to destroy the property.”

A view of the Haw River at the Saxapahaw Lake Paddle Access. (Roderico Díaz for The Assembly)

Bucking that precedent would be daunting in any legislature, and particularly in North Carolina, where the Republican majority has often resisted environmental policies that they believed would interfere with business.

But rights-of-nature has proven a potent organizing tool elsewhere, and a periodic deterrent to polluters by its political, if not always legal, force. Linzey, who has met with Haw River advocates, said the novel approach is designed to “rip apart that bundle of rights” that inherently benefits polluters.

“I think it’s the last hope of this place, to actually protect what needs to be protected,” he said. “Unless humanity is able to redefine their relationship to the natural world, we’re all fried.”

The Right To Exist 

Cavalier-Keck’s insight came last year during the Red Road to DC, a summer caravan that escorted a 5,000-pound totem pole from Washington State to Washington, D.C. Along its two-week meandering route, the caravan stopped at Indigenous sacred sites threatened by industrialization. Her husband, Jason Campos-Keck, provided security for the pole.

The Haw was heavy on the couple’s minds that summer. They run an environmental-justice collective, 7 Directions of Service, and had spent considerable energy fighting the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline. A spur of that natural gas pipeline, Southgate, would enter the state from Virginia and parallel the river in Rockingham and Alamance counties. Critics worry it would degrade woodlands and streams and leave the area vulnerable to leaks and explosions. 

The project, first announced in 2018, has not received water-quality certification from North Carolina regulators and its developer recently halted an effort to acquire in-state land through eminent domain. But the company insists that it has “not abandoned this project,” which it says will help meet a growing residential and commercial demand for fracked natural gas.  

“Western law treats nature as property. Property is a bundle of rights, and part of that bundle of rights is the authority to destroy the property.”

Thomas Linzey, senior legal counsel for the Center for Democratic and Environmental Rights

When the caravan reached the Missouri River in South Dakota, the conversation turned to rights-of-nature organizing. Under an open tent that morning, Mari Margil, the Center for Democratic and Environmental Rights’ executive director, explained that the U.S. legal system is designed to facilitate the orderly exploitation of nature. “Rather than protecting us from pipelines,” she said, “environmental laws legalize and authorize pipelines.”

The idea of reshaping the very architecture of the law by conferring rights on ecosystems has bounced around the American legal community for decades. In 1972, U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas wrote that just as corporations have legal personalities, so should “valleys, alpine meadows, rivers, lakes, estuaries, beaches, ridges, groves of trees, swampland, or even air that feels the destructive pressures of modern technology and modern life.” But his opinion was a dissent from the majority.

Map courtesy of Haw River Assembly.

It wasn’t until 2006 that Tamaqua, Pennsylvania passed the nation’s first rights-of-nature ordinance. A Republican-trending borough of 7,000 residents, Tamaqua was fighting the disposal of sewage sludge—about which the health impacts were unknown—in old coal pits. (The ordinance’s preamble noted that two Pennsylvania boys died in the 1990s after separate sludge exposures. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declined to draw a causal link.) The measure banned corporate sludge application and made it illegal for corporations “to interfere with the existence and flourishing of natural communities or ecosystems.” 

The sludge never arrived, and that victory caught the attention of global environmentalists. An organization working with Indigenous people in Ecuador invited Margil and her colleague Linzey to help draft that country’s 2008 Constitution. 

“Nature, or Pacha Mama, where life is reproduced and occurs, has the right to integral respect for its existence and for the maintenance and regeneration of its life cycles, structure, functions and evolutionary processes,” the document says. “All persons, communities, peoples and nations can call upon public authorities to enforce the rights of nature.”

Enforcement in Ecuador, however, has been uneven. The new Constitution didn’t stop oil drilling in species-rich areas, but it did halt other projects, including a copper and gold mine in the Los Cedros cloud forest. 

Since then, Bolivia, Uganda, and Panama have codified similar rights nationwide, and politicians elsewhere have passed local measures. New Zealand granted legal rights to a region considered sacred by the Maori people. Colombia’s Supreme Court granted rights to the Amazon rainforest, and Bangladesh’s highest court did so for all rivers.

About three dozen U.S. municipalities have passed their own measures, often in response to specific threats. Pittsburgh’s 2010 ordinance, for example, was an effort to deter hydraulic fracturing for natural gas. Whether or not it had legal teeth, the Pittsburgh measure did scare away gas companies. “It was as though the city put a ‘do not enter’ sign up to keep drillers away,” Kathryn Klaber, former CEO of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, told a reporter in 2015.

But state laws still take precedence over municipal ordinances, which puts innovative local initiatives at risk of being overturned from above. In Orange County, Florida, voters in 2020 passed a charter amendment giving local waterways the “right to exist, flow, [and] be protected against pollution.” It was popular, winning 89 percent of the vote in a politically divided county. But shortly before the vote, state legislators passed a law banning local rights-of-nature measures. 

Granting rights to ecosystems “will damage our tremendous economy,” state Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, a home builder and Florida’s former Republican Party chair, told his colleagues. As litigation drives up the cost of construction, “there will be no such thing as affordable housing in these areas that have these amendments.” The state law had its intended effect: last summer, a Florida judge dismissed a lawsuit filed on behalf of two lakes, two streams, and a marsh to stop a construction project in wetlands near Orlando. The case is under appeal.

Crystal Cavalier-Keck stands on the banks of the Haw River. The site of the historic textile factory, Granite Mill, can be seen in the background. (Roderico Díaz for The Assembly)

At the Red Road’s Missouri River stop, Cavalier-Keck set up camp and turned her attention to the next speaker: Guy Reiter, an organizer with the Menominee Tribe of Wisconsin. The tribe has been fighting a proposed open-pit gold and zinc mine along the Menominee River, on land Reiter called “one of the last remnants of our great culture.”

“It was always reactive, reactive, reactive, reactive to whatever the mining company was doing,” Reiter told the travelers. “We always wanted to be proactive.” In 2020, the tribal legislature enacted a resolution declaring that the river “possesses inherent and legal rights” and vowed to help protect those rights. Now, Reiter said, he is working to incorporate that sentiment into the tribal constitution.

Reiter’s passion and his take-charge approach to protecting an Indigenous treasure moved Cavalier-Keck. That same excitement, she believed, could be harnessed to protect the Haw, native land of the Sissipahaw tribe. 

“We need to have these conversations in North Carolina,” she thought.

A River’s Fortunes

In October, I met Sutton, the Haw’s Riverkeeper, at a canoe launch near Pittsboro. We walked a short distance from the parking lot and reached her favorite spot just as a great blue heron flew overhead. In front of us, the river rushed over stairstep rocks speckled with moss and autumn leaves. The biggest boulders sported faint graffiti. “Which I don’t hate,” Sutton admitted, “because I love when the public accesses these wild spaces.”

It was hard to reconcile this scene with reports from the mid-20th century, when the river changed colors depending on which dyes the textile mills had discharged. “People called it an open cesspool,” said Richard Jarrett, a retired wildlife officer who died in 2003, in Anne Melyn Cassebaum’s book Down Along the Haw. “You couldn’t stand to be near the river, the smell of dead fish was so bad.” 

When Don Francisco, a public health professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, took mud samples in 1970—near the spot that Cavalier-Keck would later visit with her grandmother—he found “the only place of sterile nature I had ever seen,” he told the Burlington Times-News. “I found nothing alive in it.”

The federal Clean Water Act of 1972, and later state regulations, eliminated the most egregious pollution. A fledgling environmental movement gave rise in 1982 to the Haw River Assembly, which monitors pollution, raises public awareness, and lends muscle to political battles. A statewide ban on phosphate detergents, passed in 1987, eased the nutrient load. And global forces like the 1992 North American Free Trade Agreement shuttered Piedmont mills, which tattered the economy but gave the river a reprieve. “It looks more like a river now,” Francisco said in 2001.

A 2006 U.S Geological Survey report found a “definable decrease” in sediment and nutrients in the Haw. These improvements, however, have not reversed Jordan Lake’s oxygen-starved state. And many environmentalists are reluctant to view the progress too optimistically. In 2014, the conservation group American Rivers added the Haw to its national most-endangered list, citing the nutrient-laden stormwater and sewage that continued to seep into its waters. “The Haw River has been the victim of death by a million cuts,” the organization says on its website.

The Bynum Bridge, which spans the Haw River, is known for its emblematic graffiti. (Roderico Díaz for The Assembly)
View of the dam in Saxapahaw, where a hydroelectric plant still produces electricity. (Roderico Díaz for The Assembly)

One reason it’s difficult to quantify progress on the Haw is that our scientific understanding has improved so much since the late 20th century. “The lack of information was astounding,” said Sutton. “We just didn’t know the scale and what the dangers were for human health or the ecosystem as a whole.”

Back then, regulators were just beginning to understand the dangers of pollutants like PFAS and 1,4-Dioxane, which DEQ calls “emerging compounds.”

In Pittsboro, the only municipality that draws its drinking water directly from the Haw, researchers at N.C. State and Duke found outsized PFAS levels in residents’ bloodstreams. These “forever chemicals,” so-named because they don’t break down easily, can be traced in part to upstream industries that sent their wastewater to municipal treatment plants in Burlington, Greensboro, and Reidsville. When revealing her team’s findings in October, N.C. State epidemiologist Jane Hoppin said strong evidence links PFAS exposure to kidney cancer, cholesterol imbalances, weakened vaccine response, and decreased infant and fetal growth.

In 2019, DEQ directed wastewater treatment facilities to screen for PFAS. Analyzing the results, the agency concluded that none of the Haw’s upstream facilities discharged enough of the chemicals to exceed EPA’s drinking-water health advisory. However, in June 2022, EPA issued interim guidance reducing the amount of PFAS it considered safe—in the case of one substance, to 1/17,500th of its previous level. DEQ has not compared the discharge numbers to the new guidance.

Likewise, upstream industries have tainted the Haw with 1,4-Dioxane, a chemical used in making paint strippers, antifreeze, and pharmaceuticals that EPA calls a likely carcinogen. “These levels are unbelievably high,” Detlef Knappe, an engineering professor at N.C. State, told Pittsboro commissioners after a 2019 spike. “Your water plant is not equipped to handle this. Actually, almost no water plant in the whole country would be able to handle this.” 

Later that year, DEQ issued notices of violation to the wastewater plants in Greensboro and Reidsville for discharging harmful amounts of 1,4-Dioxane and failing to report it on time.

River pollution forced Pittsboro to install an advanced filtration system last summer, which, at $3.5 million, “emptied our piggy bank,” said town commissioner John Bonitz. A report posted online in October showed the filter had removed more than 95 percent of PFAS chemicals. 

“We no longer have a hair-on-fire situation,” Bonitz said, but he still worries about the health impacts. He and his children had some of the highest blood concentrations in the testing, and his son had a failed response to the measles and mumps vaccines. (Some research has linked PFAS exposure to lower antibody concentrations for these two illnesses.)

Meanwhile, the region around the Haw is booming. Most of its 110-mile course runs through Alamance and Chatham counties, which are among the fastest-growing in the state.

“The lack of information was astounding. We just didn’t know the scale and what the dangers were for human health or the ecosystem as a whole.”

Emily Sutton, Haw Riverkeeper

“People need houses,” Sutton told me, but local governments can’t keep up with the demand for permit review and enforcement. “So when these construction projects start, we see that there’s sediment leaving the job site, or massive loads of mud entering our streams.” 

She motioned toward the river; an egret passed in the distance. “All of these habitats here that we’re seeing—the rocks, and the small pebbles at the bottom, and the air that’s getting in through all of these bubbles—that is the entire reason that these sensitive macroinvertebrates can live here.” 

The tiny creatures, like stoneflies, nourish the river’s fish, which in turn feed the egrets and herons above. “If a stream bed is coated with clay and silt, that kills everything in the stream,” she said. “Then you have a dead habitat. You’ve got a dead river.”

Haw Riverkeeper Emily Sutton, on the banks of the Haw River at the South Bynum River Access. (Roderico Díaz for The Assembly)
Above left: Haw Riverkeeper Emily Sutton and volunteer Nick Harper search for pollution indicators in the waters of the Haw River. Above right: Harper working. Bottom: A great blue heron wades in the water near the Saxapahaw river access. (Roderico Díaz for The Assembly)

Sutton and her colleagues are particularly anxious about Chatham Park, a development under construction that straddles Pittsboro city limits, five miles from where we sat. It will add 50,000 or more residents by 2045 and provide schools, restaurants, medical offices, an amphitheater, and a swim-and-pickleball club. Pittsboro’s current population is 4,500.

Building what is essentially a new city means bulldozing much of the wooded 7,000-acre site, which abuts the Haw and Jordan Lake. Fewer trees means fewer root systems to absorb excess nutrients. It also means more stormwater runoff, carrying with it sediment, nutrients, and toxins. Sutton said there are ways to mitigate this—for example, with green stormwater infrastructure like constructed wetlands, which filter sediment and nutrients before they reach nearby waterways. “But there’s really no incentives in North Carolina,” she said.

Chuck Smith, vice president for planning at Preston Development Company, the Cary-based firm that’s helming the project, said Chatham Park will preserve wider stream buffers, save more trees, and adhere to stricter nutrient standards than the law requires. It will use both conventional and green stormwater technology, though the proportion of each, he said, is “impossible to answer.”

“For the Haw River Assembly, it may not ever be enough, but for some people it’s too much,” Smith said. “We’re getting a lot of criticism from [private-sector] engineers in the town of Pittsboro who don’t believe in green infrastructure.”

‘Let The Water Know’

As we watched the river, I asked Sutton what she thought of the rights-of-nature movement. “I think that it’s a long uphill battle for North Carolina,” the Riverkeeper said. Still, it intrigues her as a mobilizing tool. “I think it’s worth pursuing if only to make people think about how we give rights to corporations,” but not ecosystems.

That’s key to this movement: People gravitate toward big ideas, and the principle of the rights of nature has proven a magnet for both progressives and conservatives. 

In the United States, successes have been limited and scattershot. Sometimes the courts have reversed them. But they have also resonated beyond municipal and even national borders. 

The day after my interview with Sutton, I sat in on a Zoom meeting that Cavalier-Keck’s 7 Directions of Service convened to discuss strategy. Fifteen advocates attended, most from nearby, but also a few veterans of similar campaigns elsewhere.

The North Carolinians were taking an unusual approach, even for the rights-of-nature movement. In the United States, most of the efforts have been local ordinances passed by ballot measures or municipal bodies. 

But North Carolina doesn’t allow citizens to vote directly on most policies, and local governments here have limited regulatory power. Instead, Cavalier-Keck, her husband, and their allies are pushing for statewide legislation—a reflection of where environmental decision-making typically takes place. They have not yet lined up a sponsor.

Crystal Cavalier-Keck and Jason Campos-Keck on the banks of the Haw River. (Roderico Díaz for The Assembly)

Earlier, they had met with Linzey, the attorney. He had drafted a model bill called the Rights of the Haw River Ecosystem Act. Not only would it authorize residents to sue on the river’s behalf, but it would also direct state regulators to review their policies and practices for any that interfere with the Haw’s right to “full restoration.” 

Cavalier-Keck had talked with state Rep. Ricky Hurtado, a Democrat who represents Alamance County, about introducing the bill. He said he was open to further conversation.

Cavalier-Keck acknowledged that passing a state law was a heavy lift. Much of the effort, she said, will go toward building a coalition along the river—a long-haul movement that she and Campos-Keck hope will bring together environmentalists, civic organizations, tribal citizens, and conservative rural residents who rely on healthy ecosystems for hunting, fishing, and farming.

“We work with every kind of two-legged: every label, every box, every class, every culture, every religion,” said Campos-Keck at the meeting. “And it’s going to be uncomfortable for North Carolinians.” But building a cross-ideological coalition, the couple believes, is the only way to gain political traction in a state like this.

Before the meeting ended, Campos-Keck asked the others on the Zoom call to grab some water from their homes. “Pray with that water,” he said. “Let the water know that you’re coming to protect it, and that you need a little help.”

A month later, the effort experienced its first setback—Hurtado, the legislator they’d had the most traction with, lost his re-election bid.

Cavalier-Keck seemed disappointed but not deterred. She has a bipartisan list to approach as possible sponsors. And she has secured billboard space to publicize the first of a series of community meetings. It is slated for Saxapahaw on December 16.

Barry Yeoman is a freelance journalist based in Durham. Find more of his work here.

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