Maryland boy grows up to wade into troubled waters of N.C. home Keeper of river fights Pfiesteria, polluters

December 01, 1997|By Douglas M. Birch | Douglas M. Birch,SUN STAFF

NEW BERN, N.C. -- On hot summer afternoons back in the 1940s, a young Rick Dove pleaded with his mother to let him swim at a beach on Dundalk's Bear Creek, just two blocks from their apartment behind the family's dry-cleaning shop.

She refused, pointing to sewage trickling out of pipes leading from homes along the banks. "Why don't we just tell them to stop?" asked Dove, voicing a child's naive question.

Today, Richard J. Dove, 58, is older and wiser. The Marine Corps veteran served two tours of duty in Vietnam and spent 23 years as a military prosecutor and judge. But he's never forgotten growing up near Maryland's waters, and he's doing just what he burned to do a half-century ago.

He's asking polluters to stop pouring wastes into the river near his North Carolina home.

Dove works for the private Neuse River Foundation as keeper of this coal-colored river, which slides about 250 miles from piedmont to tidewater, from west of Raleigh to Pamlico Sound. The 6,000-square-mile watershed includes more than 1,000 industrial-sized hog farms and numerous poultry operations.

These are troubled waters. Every summer, parts of the river boil with dead and dying fish that have been assaulted by the microorganism Pfiesteria piscicida.

Dove has become an advocate for perhaps 30 fishermen, divers, construction workers and others in this area who believe they've been harmed by Pfiesteria's toxins.

As one of some 24 river keepers licensed by a national environmental organization, Dove patrols the Neuse in his crab boat, the Lonesome Dove.

He testifies before legislative committees, negotiates with and occasionally litigates against industries and governments, and lectures around the state, mobilizing citizens on the river's behalf.

"He is a very effective and formidable advocate for whatever position he's taking," Mary Ann Harrison, president of the river foundation, says. He is shrewd and self-assured, she says, but also has a delicate touch.

"One person that I know who worked with Rick described him as a sophisticated, polite tiger," she says.

Dove is an ally of Dr. JoAnn Burkholder's of North Carolina State University, the aquatic ecologist who helped discover Pfiesteria.

Like Burkholder, Dove blames North Carolina's Pfiesteria blooms the high nutrient levels in the state's estuaries. Like Burkholder, he has publicly criticized North Carolina officials, saying they haven't done enough to clean up the state's rivers and aren't taking Pfiesteria's potential threat to human health seriously enough.

Their response has ranged from exasperation to disdain.

"Mr. Dove's job is to keep the Neuse River on the front page of the paper, and he's as controversial as he can be," says Dr. Stanley Music, North Carolina's chief of environmental epidemiology.

Health study

North Carolina has begun a study of potential health effects of Pfiesteria, but waited until a team of Maryland doctors said it linked fish kills last summer to symptoms in people who had contact with the Pocomoke River.

On this overcast morning, Dove is sipping coffee at a fast-food restaurant. The Neuse's advocate in chief wears his power suit: blue military pants stuffed into rugged hiking boots, a work shirt and khaki fisherman's vest. His face is ruddy from the wind, and his hands are rough and cracked.

Even when he was a boy fishing for eel and carp near the mouth of Bear Creek, he says, he wanted to work on the water. But his parents steered him toward law school, and he earned his degree from the University of Baltimore in 1964.

After enlisting in the Marine Corps, Dove practiced military law in courtrooms in Vietnam, Okinawa and Camp Lejeune, N.C.

When he retired with the rank of colonel in 1987, at age 46, he decided to stay in North Carolina and do what he had originally set out to do: work on the water. He bought a big commercial fishing boat, 800 crab pots, 2,000 yards of gill netting and a seafood market in Havelock, N.C.

"I was a waterman all the way," he says. He and his son, then 16, spent long days hauling nets and traps, sorting catches on the sun-hammered water. But they soon began to notice "signs of trouble everywhere."

In warm weather, the 50-mile-long tidal section of the Neuse began to take on weird colors: from the tint of orange juice to a putrid black and green. Fish started dying in large numbers.

"There were these huge gaping sores," he says. "Crabs had holes in their shells." Dove suffered health problems, including periods of confusion -- symptoms he now suspects might have been linked to Pfiesteria.

No more seafood

By 1989, he says, he and his family stopped eating seafood from the Neuse, and then decided they couldn't sell what they wouldn't eat.

Dove sold his business and his crab pots and opened a small law practice.

Drawn back to the water, he began work as the Neuse River's keeper on April Fool's Day in 1993. At the time, the foundation had 180 members and a start-up grant of $25,000.

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