Bill Leslie: The Neuse River is not a report card I’d want to take home to my parents

April 15, 2019

Troubled Rivers was the most important documentary I’ve ever done. It struck a nerve with the public in 1990. It revealed specific and disturbing pollution problems in the Neuse River. And it offered solutions.

The documentary was played to the North Carolina State Legislature. Lawmakers responded with major corrective action to rescue the river.

I wanted to go back now almost 30 years later and see how we’re doing. And I found out we’re not doing that well. In many ways we’ve dropped the ball on protecting the river. I think we need to get back to the serious business of protecting water quality again.

29 years ago the Neuse River was gasping for breath and choking on pollution. Fish in the river were dying by the millions. I worked on a documentary detailing the problems and possible solutions. It was gratifying to see a bi-partisan group of state lawmakers respond with a remarkable series of changes to protect river.

Today – almost three decades later – we look at how that river rescue plan was blown off track by three things: a massive hurricane, a political tempest and public apathy.

WRAL broke new ground in the late 1980s and 1990s by naming a full-time environmental reporter. That was my job. And one of the first things I discovered was that the Neuse River was very sick.

I found a group of scientists who helped me diagnose the problem. Our reporting prompted corrective action in the Legislature to heal the river.

Now 29 years later, we go back to those same scientists and ask them how is the river doing today. Each scientist gives the Neuse River a letter grade. And all I can say – it is not a report card I’d want to take home to my parents.