Agencies delay ruling on bypass moratorium

Published 3:43 am Saturday, February 14, 2009

By Staff
Highway 17 bypass construction was required to stop at midnight Saturday
Contributing Editor
Pile driving for the U.S. Highway 17 bypass bridge at Washington cannot continue past tonight.
How long will the pile driving be banned? It depends on what happens next week at a meeting of environmental regulatory agencies, the N.C. Department of Transportation and Flatiron/United.
Flatiron/United’s permit requires it to halt driving pilings into the Tar River from Feb. 15 to June 15.
The moratorium was developed to protect some species of fish as they migrate upriver to spawn. State policy requires that activities potentially creating an environment not conducive to spawning be suspended until spawning season concludes.
Flatiron/United asked the state to lift the moratorium, which Mallett said last week would speed up the project, reduce the amount of time crews would work over the river and lessen the river’s exposure to potential environmental damage caused by construction.
As of Friday afternoon, Mallett had received no word from the state on whether the moratorium would be lifted.
A spokesman for the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources contacted the Daily News shortly before 5 p.m. with information about the matter.
Those agencies — the N.C. Division of Water Quality, N.C. Division of Coastal Management and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — plan to meet with DOT and the contractor early next week before deciding on the request for a variance, Kritzer said. Each of those three agencies must agree to the variance conditions before the moratorium is lifted or modified, she added.
Since last week, those agencies have been communicating with one another about the request to lift the moratorium, Kritzer noted.
The moratorium on pile-driving is resulting in layoffs, Mallett said.
Mallett declined further comment on the matter.
The Pamlico-Tar River Foundation has not taken a position on the moratorium. The organization has indicated it can’t make definitive conclusions on possible effects the new bridge construction method might have on migrating fish. Instead of driving pilings around the clock until all of them are in place, Flatiron/United is driving pilings for about four hours a week, said Pamlico-Tar Riverkeeper Heather Jacobs Deck.
The noise generated and energy dissipated by pile-driving activities could adversely affect some fish species, such as American shad that have “more sensitive” hearing than other species, Deck said. Pile-driving activities, which “create a lot of sound and energy,” could confuse and irritate such fish, she said. Some fish with ruptured swim bladders have been found near pile-driving activities in waterways, Deck added.
It’s that noise and energy that worries Deck more than pilings interfering with upstream migration of fish. The bypass project provides an opportunity to scientifically assess pile-driving effects, she said.
If the moratorium is lifted for the bypass project, Deck wrote in a Daily News letter to the editor, PTRF hopes that state environmental regulators will include a study and appropriate mitigation measures to reduce impact and fish mortality.
Cutline for corresponding photo: The launching gantry for the Highway 17 bypass project juts out over the Tar River in a view photographed earlier this month. (WDN Photo/Paul Dunn)