Two days after a period of rain that drenched the Southeast—and made the state of South Carolina a disaster zone—AOPA flew along the swollen, muddy James River from Richmond, Virginia, to the base of the Blue Ridge mountains.
Locals call the river James Brown when it looks like this—a foaming form of chocolate pudding that isn’t very appetizing. The Richmond area was spared the devastation that South Carolina is experiencing and the threat of a hurricane forecast to slam into the East Coast, which stayed mostly out to sea.
But we weren’t here because of the rain and although our mission was to examine the river, it wasn’t because it was a swollen, muddy mess. We joined a SouthWings conservation flight led by Pat Calvert, the Upper James River riverkeeper, whose job it is to monitor the health of the river. A muddy mess isn’t the James at its best; voted by Outside magazine as the nation’s best river town, Richmond and its inhabitants usually are out celebrating their river. “On any warm day like this, there are usually thousands of people out on the river,” Calvert said.
Calvert is a member of the nation’s Waterkeeper Alliance, and he and others of the nation’s waterkeepers—there are about 250 across the country—call on the help of groups such as SouthWings, an environmental nonprofit organization that supplies aircraft and volunteer pilots to patrol the Southeast’s waterways from the air.
Calvert is looking for signs of coal ash and cattle access along the river, for pollutants “you don’t want in your drinking water,” he said. The volunteer pilot is Hap Endler, who has been flying his Skylane for SouthWings missions for the past 10 years. He’s based in North Carolina, where the riverkeepers look for similar pollutants, including offal from chicken farms and waste from lumber companies that strip mountains and produce dangerous sediments in the rivers and other waterways.
Calvert has Endler fly along the river near the railway line that borders it. Calvert would like to see evidence of trains bearing oil from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota. The freight companies do not publish when the trains run, and Calvert sees potential danger in an oil spill from a train crash—much like what happened in Lynchburg, Virginia, in 2014 when a train derailed and spilled 30,000 gallons of crude oil into the James River. Taking photographs as we fly along the river, Calvert mumbles, “I want to see a train, a mile-and-a-half-long train.”
We see a coal train, a power plant, submerged tanks, cows dangerously heading toward the river (who knew cows and chickens posed such threats?), but no crude-oil-laden trains. In fact, it’s a beautiful flight along one of the country’s most beautiful rivers—albeit not at its best—and over gorgeous landscapes. A profile of SouthWings and its work will appear in an upcoming issue of AOPA Pilot.