with permit|Won’t fight to overturn COE decision

Published 2:32 am Friday, June 19, 2009

Staff Writer

The Environmental Protection Agency announced Thursday it won’t challenging a federal decision allowing PCS Phosphate to expand its mining operations near Aurora.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently granted the company a permit that will allow it to expand its mine by more than 10,000 acres. The expansion is expected to destroy thousands of acres of wetlands, but save jobs in Beaufort County.
“EPA concluded that the revised permit, which includes additional environmental protections required by EPA, complies with the requirements of the Clean Water Act, and if properly implemented, would not cause unacceptable adverse impacts to aquatic resources,” reads a statement from the agency.
Environmental groups panned the move, which was a significant mellowing from earlier EPA positions, but government and corporate officials praised it.
“Obviously, we’re very pleased the corps issued the 404 permit and very pleased the EPA is supporting the decision,” said Ross Smith, the mine’s manager of environmental affairs.
County Manager Paul Spruill is pleased, too.
“As the county’s largest employer, PCS’s ability to continue business solidifies both its economic impact and job opportunities for citizens in Beaufort County and the greater region for at least the next three to four decades,” he said.
U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, the state’s junior senator, praised the decision.
“Beaufort County and employees of PCS Phosphate have waited many years for this day to come and I am glad this process has finally reached a conclusion,” she said in a press release.
Beaufort County officials went to Washington, D.C., twice to lobby federal officials on the matter. On their second trip, they were concerned primarily with Hagan, who reaffirmed her support for a quick resolution to the question soon thereafter.
Heather Jacobs Deck, the Pamlico-Tar riverkeeper, said it’s too soon to know if environmental groups will take it upon themselves to challenge the permit.
“The first thing that we’re trying to understand at this point in time is EPA’s sort of inexplicable flip-flop,” she said.
Riverkeepers are supported by nonprofit associations as advocates for riverine ecosystems.
The EPA initially called for broader concessions from the Corps of Engineers and PCS Phosphate, pushing the decision from the corps’ office in Wilmington to its headquarters, in Washington, D.C., but the EPA won only very minor concessions in the round of talks that extra review created, Deck said.
A principal issue was whether the company should be allowed to mine more than 1,000 acres of wetlands near the headwaters of streams that serve as nurseries for fish and other aquatic life. According to a statement from the Southern Environmental Law Center’s office in Chapel Hill, the EPA only managed to get an extra 44 acres protected.
Deck said the wetlands are important not just for what happens in them, but for the effects they have on water and nutrients flowing to other places.
“EPA isn’t protecting the environment our children and grandchildren will inherit long after PCS Phosphate mining has left the area,” said Derb Carter, director of the Carolinas office of the Southern Environmental Law Center, in a press release.
Work on the mine expansion could begin as soon as July, depending on ancillary permits that are expected shortly, Smith said.
The number of contractors employed by PCS Phosphate dipped last summer as the company ran out of land that needed clearing before mining operations could begin. Smith said he expects the expansion, which will involve the relocation of part of N.C. Highway 306, will boost that number, at least in the short term.