Having moved into the electoral homestretch, actual facts about the current state of affairs in North Carolina have become as scarce as homeless folks in Cary. Candidates offer grossly oversimplified and often conflicting soundbites about the state of education, the economy, taxes, health care, jobs and everything else they think potential voters want to hear. Much of the public’s attention is now focused on the horse race at the expense of the horses. Even the well-intended efforts of the media to identify distortions and outright lies in attack ads offer little in the way of meaningful analysis of a candidate’s record, leaving the rabble to feed largely on impressions refracted through their partisan and ideological lenses. The better measure of where candidates actually stand can be found far from the campaign battlefield, out of earshot of the ceaseless, hollow rhetorical drumbeat. In the Lower Neuse River basin near New Bern, for example, the lowly menhaden has been making a case that attention this election season is focused in all the wrong places.

On Sept. 1, those living along the river began to notice that large numbers of menhaden, an integral part of the Neuse estuarian food chain, had developed large, ugly sores on their bodies. Lesions on menhaden are not uncommon–as many as 5 percent of the population may have lesions during the late summer, when cumulative stresses from heat and water quality problems make them more susceptible to disease.

But this was no ordinary “lesion event,” as state officials call it. According to Rick Dove of the Waterkeeper Alliance, who lives on the south shore of the Neuse, the number of affected fish near his home ranged from 85 to 100 percent of the total population. In the ensuing days, the fish began dying in huge numbers and sinking to the bottom or washing ashore. Sickened fish were eaten by birds that congregated by the thousands to feed on their sluggish prey. By Sept. 9, when the fish kill ended, Dove estimated that 9 million menhaden had perished. The actual number may be closer to 18 million. “I reduced [the estimate] in half to make sure I wasn’t giving a bogus number,” he says.

The state’s Neuse River Rapid Response Team, a subset of the Division of Water Quality, checked out the first reports on Sept. 2. Environmental specialist Jason Green says the team sampled the water and observed a high volume of lesioned fish but very few dead ones. “At that point we hadn’t gotten any reports of a fish kill,” Green says.

That conflicts with the account of Lower Neuse River Keeper Larry Baldwin, who arrived at Dove’s dock as events were first unfolding and, after netting some menhaden and surveying the scene, called the Rapid Response Team. “I told them I was pulling up fish with sores, and that some of them were dead,” Baldwin says. “As far as I recall, the words I used were, ‘We’re having a fish kill.’ ”

And a Sept. 2 New Bern Sun-Journal story noted that an outbreak of disease and a “fish kill” had prompted a call to the Rapid Response Team.

Having duly noted the lesion problem, Green says, the state team went home for the Labor Day weekend. “We generally don’t work overtime when we’ve already evaluated a situation,” he says. The team returned to the scene after the holiday and calculated the volume of dead fish. “We counted approximately 131,000,” Green says.

While differing methodologies may account for some of the discrepancy in the numbers, that doesn’t explain the enormous gap. Dove, who pulls few punches when discussing the sorry state of monitoring and enforcement of environmental conditions on the Neuse, is aghast but not surprised at what he says is typical state foot-dragging and subsequent downplaying of such emergencies. The sweeping appearance of lesions on menhaden–coupled with local television and newspaper accounts–should have mobilized the team to immediate and sustained action. “They were put on notice that there was a huge fish disease and kill event in progress, and they took the weekend off,” he says.

Precisely what caused the fish kill remains a mystery, and probably will forever, just as previous kills on the Neuse have gone unsolved. The science behind determining cause and effect is still imperfect–the lesions are generally caused by microorganisms, but the fundamental sources of such an outbreak and its consequences remain unclear. While some can be natural, such as excessive heat combined with drought or an excess of rain reducing salinity in the estuary that weaken the fish, others are directly related to pollution. The many sources of pollution include industrial chemicals, stormwater runoff, hog waste and agricultural fertilizers, and figuring out which combinations of which pollutants are responsible for a single incident is virtually impossible.

Dove says focusing on the precise cause of the fish kill distracts from the primary point–that the Neuse needs to be cleaner than it is. Studies show that certain types of pollutants have been reduced in recent years, but they have been largely offset by increases in others, including waste from hog farms. “There’s strides that are being made,” says Upper Neuse River Keeper Dean Naujoks. But some of the larger polluters and the hog industry in particular, Naujoks says, “have done nothing to change their practices.”

Which brings us back to the legislature, the governor and other state leaders, and the bureaucrats who serve them. As The News & Observer‘s Richard Stradling recently reported, the legislature rolled back new stormwater runoff rules last session that will exempt some of the most sensitive land in the state, including large tracts of Johnston, Wake and Chatham counties that are coveted for development. The reason: The N.C. Home Builders Association boo-hooed that the new rules were too burdensome, as they do whenever environmental protections are proposed that might nibble a few bucks off their bottom line.

The rules, which had been five years in the making, were supported by the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources as well as the League of Municipalities and county governments. But when the lobbyists from the Home Builders Association came whining about excessive regulation to their buddies at the state capitol and flashed wads of campaign cash to those who voted properly, it proved too hard for the spineless majority to resist.

One might think that improving the quality of the state’s fouled waterways and protecting drinking water supplies for the next generations of North Carolinians would be a simple political matter. The depressed eastern part of the state can certainly argue that its economic interests are closely tied to water quality, as desperate oystermen suffering ever-declining yields can testify. It’s not likely that fish pocked with red sores invites much enthusiasm from recreational boaters and other tourists. And real estate values along the Neuse have suffered the past decade because of the perception that the water can make residents sick.

But such logic takes a back seat when the lobbyists come calling. And the effects ripple through the ranks of government, as they did last year when excessive spring rains hit hog country. Dove and other watchdogs took aerial photos and otherwise documented that hog farmers were illegally spraying waste from their lagoons onto oversaturated fields and allowing their lagoon levels to rise to the breaking point.

Despite operating at only half staff and waiting to investigate until the worst was past, DENR inspectors wrote more than 400 Notices of Violation–none based on Dove’s evidence, which was deemed insufficient, and most from violators who turned themselves in. After the farmers and their trade groups complained, three quarters of those were ultimately reduced to Notices of Deficiency, the equivalent of traffic warnings. Very few resulted in fines or anything beyond a wrist-slap. In fact, the animal waste subsection in the Division of Water Quality is the only state group that still issues the weak Notices of Deficiency.

To avoid such sticky moments in the future, state regulators helped issue new guidelines giving some hog farmers more flexibility to spray their waste under wet conditions.

Come Nov. 2, no matter who wins the right to represent the citizens in Raleigh, those who truly set policy and influence the state’s direction will remain essentially unchanged.

Contact Burtman at burtman@indyweek.com.