November 2000 Richmond Times Article

26 Feb
February 26, 2009

I am posting this article again because it is amazing at how far the BNRP has come since 2000. Equipment is better, we are known statewide as an honest and knowlegable organization, our membership is outstanding and I could go on and on. I also noticed that our parent organization the Waterkeeper Alliance at that time had only 56 KEEPER programs and now there is like 156. Another thing I thought was interesting was the fact the BNRP had not yet started receiving funding.

Nov 23, 2000 Keeper of the rivers Man’s passion is turned into public service PHOTOS AND ARTICLE BY REX SPRINGSTONTIMES-DISPATCH STAFF WRITER

FRANKLIN — If you cut Jeff Turner, you would probably find a tributary of the Blackwater River. His blood just flows that way. Turner, 40, is a modern-day blend of Huck Finn and Peter Pan. He spends every free moment doing what he’s loved since childhood – boating, fishing and sleeping along the wild, swampy Blackwater and Nottoway rivers.

Partially paralyzed, badly bent and constantly in pain from a car wreck that broke his neck when he was 17, Turner took disability five years ago and walked away – limped, actually – from a drugstore job in this mill city 65 miles southeast of Richmond. Free from the workaday world, Turner started spending nearly as much time on the rivers as he spent in his modest brick rancher in the Southampton County community of Sedley. Accompanied by his aging but energetic little mutt, Moonpie, Turner is on the river three or four days and nights a week, sleeping with the owls and water moccasins and towering cypress trees.

“There is probably nobody around here that knows these rivers better than I do,” he said. This spring, Turner turned his passion into a public service. He became the official Riverkeeper for the Blackwater and Nottoway. He is affiliated with the Waterkeeper Alliance, a nonprofit umbrella group in White Plains, N.Y., led by Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

There are 56 “keeper” programs in the United States, monitoring waterways from the Puget Sound in Washington to the Cape Fear River in North Carolina.

The keepers are full-time, paid workers. The Waterkeeper Alliance provides information and legal advice but no money to the various programs. The programs are autonomous nonprofit operations. Turner is Virginia’s first Riverkeeper. He reports pollution, picks up trash, preaches conservation and generally runs a one-man waterborne neighborhood watch.

Turner is seeking nonprofit status and will operate on grants and donations. His first-year goal is $8,000, for expenses and a small salary. On a recent crisp fall day, Turner lowered his 15-foot aluminum bass boat into the Blackwater just south of Franklin and went to work. The Blackwater is a sleepy Southern river, flat and dark as a black mirror.

Turner motored upriver past cypress trees, tupelos, sweet gums and birches. The boat cast a wake against woody cypress knees that lined the bank like an army of gnomes at attention. A red-trailed hawk soared over the river, and the bark of an angry squirrel interrupted the hum of a distant bypass. The trees were just starting to get their fall colors. The river exuded an organic smell, like damp earth.

“You can see why I love it out here,” Turner said. The 6-foot-4 Turner piloted the boat from the bow. His uniform of the day was raggedy, patched nylon overalls over a collarless gray cotton shirt. The chilly breeze flicked at his pony-tailed brown hair, graying along the sideburns. He wore a green ballcap, dark-tinted glasses and green rubber boots.

The 7-year-old, gray-muzzled Moonpie normally occupies the boat’s back seat. Small but feisty, Moonpie wasn’t inclined to share her seat with a reporter, so Turner left her home this day. She wasn’t happy. Turner pointed out one of his camping spots, a small clearing on the bank with a makeshift table.

For protection on his camp-outs, Turner keeps, in addition to Moonpie, a .44-caliber Magnum pistol. “It just makes you feel better.” Turner pulled into a creek that fills with trash during rains. It held an assortment of beer bottles, foam cups, motor-oil containers, even a basketball. Turner is lobbying Franklin officials to install a fence or boom to keep the trash from the river.

“You would cry if you saw what I pick up out here,” Turner said. A snapshot he keeps at home shows the bottom of his boat loaded with Blackwater trash. Farther up, the trees on the left bank gave way to Barrett’s Landing, a Franklin park with manicured grass and concrete walkways. Fourteen months ago, the park lay under 22 feet of water when Hurricane Floyd turned the sluggish Blackwater into a raging flood.

The flood wrecked more than 100 businesses in Franklin’s downtown. Turner pulled the boat up to a wooded area just past the landing. Last month, he spotted raw sewage running into the river there. He reported the pollution, and the state Department of Environmental Quality told the offender, Birdsong Peanuts, to halt the discharge. Turner had scored his first big success as Riverkeeper.

About the same time, Turner spotted sudsy water pouring into the river from a Franklin car wash. The car wash didn’t have city and state permits, and Franklin officials shut it down. Bill Hayden, a spokesman for the Department of Environmental Quality, said the DEQ doesn’t have the staff to patrol rivers for pollution. He praised Turner’s work.

“Any time people can bring to our attention a situation that needs to be fixed, that’s great.” Turner stepped out of the boat to check the Birdsong discharge pipe. He had to hike through an overgrown patch of woods. After just a few steps, he was tiring.

“If I go down, don’t worry about it,” he said. Turner was paralyzed 23 years ago when a car he rode in crashed. He learned to walk again, but he does so with pain and a bad limp. He has little strength in his left arm and leg; his left hand is nearly frozen, clawlike. Turner found a second pipe, dribbling a liquid that formed a brown, frothy stream with an oily sheen.

The stuff flowed through the woods to the river. “I don’t think anybody wants this running in their river,” he said. The pipe turned out to be a second illegal discharge of sewage from Birdsong. The DEQ would later tell the company to stop that one, too.

The cases are under investigation for possible enforcement action. W.M. Birdsong Jr., the company’s vice president, said contractors installed the pipes incorrectly years ago, and the company didn’t know it. The pipes served peanut shelling and storage plants.

The company has stopped the releases and is connecting to Franklin’s sewer system, Birdsong said last week. Birdsong said he appreciated Turner “using his good judgment to make the environment better. I’m glad [the problem] has been found, and I know, positively, it’s been properly addressed.

” Walking back to the boat, Turner caught his left foot in some vines and didn’t have the strength to pull it out. He pulled a big knife from a sheath at his waist, chopped the vines and moved on. Back in the boat, Turner pulled up to the Franklin landing. Over a sandwich lunch, he told how fishing trips with his father and grandfather had spawned his love for the river in early childhood.

After his injury, he said, he took to the river to prove to himself he could overcome the physical challenge. “It’s nice to come out when it’s 17 degrees, and the water’s freezing in your [fishing] reel, and stay out four days and say I did it.” Once, he took a trip with a Moonpie predecessor, Pigface, down the upper Blackwater near Surry County, where the river is one big swamp.

He spent four days, some of them lost, pulling the boat over beaver dams. The mosquitoes were so bad he had to wear a rain suit on the steamy summer trip. “The mosquitoes would go up your nose and all behind your glasses. There was nothing you could do about it.” That’s a challenge he said he would rather not face again.

On the river, Turner often catches his dinner or shoots it with a 20-gauge shotgun. In addition to ducks and wild turkeys, he has eaten groundhog (“Excellent”), beaver (“Not”) and water moccasin (“That was good”). Turner also likes the solitude.

“I’m not a real social animal because of my disability. Not a whole lot of girls out there want to date a crippled 40-year-old.” Turner enjoys watching the sun set over the water. He savors the smell of wild roses that line the riverbanks in summer. He particularly enjoys nights, when no one else is on the river, and he can catfish from his boat under a glistening moon.

“I like it when you get in your tent to go to bed and the owls start up” with a low call that builds into a cat-like scream. “The first time I heard it, I thought somebody was getting killed.” Once, at
night in his boat, Turner saw a meteor rocket across the sky. “It looked like a jet airplane coming out of the sky, with flames shooting off of it.” Turner started the outboard motor and headed back upriver.

Just above Franklin, he pointed out a beaver lodge. Moonpie will sometimes harass holed-up beavers. “They’ll get mad and come out, like torpedoes shot from a boat.” When the sun started getting low, Turner headed home. A kingfisher – a blue-and-white bird with a comically oversized head and crest – raced the boat, staying just ahead like a dolphin before a ship. Turner cranked up the speed, and so did the kingfisher.

The bird turned its normal stroke-stroke-glide flight into a high-performance stroke-stroke-stroke-stroke. After a quarter-mile chase, Turner backed off the throttle. “You can’t win that race,” he said. The victorious bird peeled off to the right and perched in a tree.

Headed home in his truck as the sunset, Turner reflected on his youth. Raging against his disability, he had turned into a “hell raiser” who dabbled in drugs. He increasingly turned to the river, like a church, to find peace. “It’s changed my life. I’d probably be dead by now if I hadn’t started doing this.” Turner isn’t real religious, but he does say his prayers at night. “I say, ‘Please Lord, don’t ever let the river change for the worse, and please let me and Moonpie keep coming out here and enjoying it.'”

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