Don’t drink the water. I’ve heard it nearly a hundred times already, and I’ve only been here a week.
When I accepted a position as a visiting professor in the creative writing department at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, I wasn’t thinking about the drinking water. Mostly, I was thinking about the beach, the beach, and a little more about the beach. Also, my syllabi, my students, and my swimsuits. I didn’t think twice about the Cape Fear River two blocks from my new home. But I’m thinking a lot about it now.
Last week, after moving some of my books, most of my closet, and all of my highlighters to Wilmington, I started to hear the same four words again and again, an inescapably eerie refrain: Don’t drink the water. I heard it from my neighbors, strangers at the supermarket, fellow professors, students and so many others.
My first class, Forms of Fiction, ended with a nonfiction finale at the Student Center featuring Erin Brockovich. Still, it all sounded like sci-fi to me. Ms. Brockovich was in town with Robert Bowcock, a water safety expert who lost me within a few minutes flat, to host a meeting for members of the Wilmington community about their drinking water. Several of my new students and I were among hundreds who attended that meeting. The focus of conversation was GenX, an unregulated chemical compound released into the Cape Fear River by the Chemours Company, a nearly $9 billion chemical corporation and recent DuPont spinoff that claims to be “shaping markets, defining industries, [and] changing lives.”
Indeed, Chemours appears to be changing lives alright. It has struck fear into the hearts of countless Wilmington residents, leading many who can afford it to flock to bottled water and fancy filtration systems, all of which seem to come with their own headaches while providing zero guarantees.
Ultimately, no one seems to know exactly what GenX can or can’t do. Me least of all. I do know, however, that I don’t want to be drinking it. Likewise, I don’t want to be drinking pig or chicken excrement, but thanks to southeastern North Carolina’s massive factory farm industry, which seems perfectly happy settling in a floodplain, alarming levels of both have found their way into the Cape Fear River as well, making it—along with the nearby Neuse river—the seventh most endangered river in the country according to the national water conservation organization, American Rivers. Roughly forty percent of North Carolinians, moreover, get their drinking water from the Neuse and Cape Fear river basins.
I’ve lived in North Carolina for only five years now; I’m new to Wilmington, and I’m not an environmental expert, so I admit that I am way out of my depth here. I heard a lot of acronyms at the meeting last week that I had to look up, and even still, I didn’t fully understand what they meant. What I did understand was that my tap water could be poisonous. No one wanted to say it was poisonous, but no one could assure me that it wasn’t either—and plenty seemed understandably concerned by the possibility.
Driving home last night, I passed the same two giant Confederate monuments I have passed by every day since I’ve been here. Behind one of them was a police van seemingly protecting the inanimate object from people like me: people who see these statues as personal attacks, people who feel like they are spitting at us every time we pass them, people who are beginning to spit back. I was livid.
Could it be that our leaders care more about protecting these eyesores than they do about protecting us? Could it be that preserving our racist history is more important to them than preserving our drinking water? Could it be that defending granite matters more to them than defending health and human rights? So far, standing at the banks of the Cape Fear River, that’s exactly what it looks like.