Over the last four months an environmental nightmare has become a reality in the Neuse River, once a prime recreational waterway in North Carolina. An estimated 10 million fish, from menhaden to striped bass, have been killed by low levels of dissolved oxygen and a bizarre alga known as Pfiesteria piscidia, a one-celled dinoflagellate that thrives in polluted waters.
The alga also is believed to harm humans. This summer, a number of divers and marine contractors developed sores not unlike those found in the fish. They were described by one victim, Joe Lopes, 26, as "festering boils that oozed green pus on my legs, arms and face." Lopes was hospitalized with a high white-blood-cell count after losing 15 pounds in three days and suffering severe stomach cramps.
An ecological catastrophe of this sort was almost inevitable in North Carolina, which, according to a study by the Institute for Southern Studies, ranks 47th among U.S. states in per capita expenditures to protect the environment and is also on the EPA's list of the worst 10 states for releasing toxins. Further, the Neuse has gotten hit in the last decade as Carolina has jumped to second (behind Iowa) in hog production. Raw feces from the roughly seven million swine on these farms are flushed into lagoons that seep into the Neuse and other waters.
Not surprisingly, politics is involved. U.S. Senator Lauch Faircloth, a Republican who heads an environmental subcommittee, is a major hog investor. Governor Jim Hunt, a Democrat, is the biggest recipient of political contributions from North Carolina's biggest pig farmer, Wendell Murphy, a former Democratic state senator who has been dubbed Boss Hog.
Equally unsurprising is that the state is going on the offensive against those who have been calling attention to the Neuse disaster. Four weeks ago, state officials and Onslow County commissioners met to discuss a report by JoAnn Burkholder, who teaches botany at North Carolina State, about her finding of unsafe levels of fecal coliform bacteria in sediments in the New River. Michael Moser, the head of the state department of epidemiology, dismissed her report, and, more ominously, county commissioner Sam Hewitt asked that the state silence her and other scientists because they were hurting the economy and tourism. "I'd like to take a rubber hose to some of them," said Hewitt.
And that's the way that environmentalists who cherish the Neuse feel about those responsible for the tragedy. Said Rick Dove, a retired Marine colonel and the river keeper for the Neuse River Foundation, "I am watching my river die."
A Bluff Called in Vegas
After criticizing his school's woeful football team in a column three weeks ago, Michael Melissa, sports editor of The Rebel Yell, UNLV's school newspaper, offered his services to the squad. "I am not that big, and I am not that strong," wrote Melissa in a gross understatement, "but I am fast.... Put me in, Coach, I'm ready to play." And so was Jeff Horton, a coach with a good sense of humor and a bad team—he invited Melissa to practice with the squad on Oct. 18.
Horton mercilessly installed the 5'5", 140-pound Melissa at running back against the first string. "The quarterback handed me the ball and got out of the way," said Melissa, "and so did the offensive line." (Considering the Rebs' 1-7 record, they must occasionally follow that strategy during games, too.) Anyway, Melissa gained—well, that's not exactly the right word—minus 33 yards on three carries and had two fumbles. Then he moved to noseguard, possibly to see if he could shore up a defense that has given up nearly 50 points per game this season. On his first drill, center John Zaczek drove him upfield 30 yards. "Everything went left while I was going right," said Melissa. And when the two-hour practice was over, both player and coach breathed sighs of relief.
"I was praying nothing happened to him," said Horton. "Just about everything else has gone wrong for us this year. I figured nothing else could. It was a good time." So good that Horton showed the Melissa highlights at his weekly booster club luncheon.