Mine permit may spur legal action

Published 8:04 pm Thursday, July 25, 2013

The permit that would send 12 million gallons of water per day of a mix of stormwater and groundwater into the headwaters of Blounts Creek was issued to Martin Marietta Materials, Inc. on Wednesday, with a few changes to ensure monitoring of the affected areas.

But according to Pamlico-Tar River Foundation riverkeeper Heather Jacobs Deck, the additions to the permit don’t do much to protect the creek and its aquatic life and its issuance may lead to legal action.

The project, a 649-acre open-pit aggregate mine on 1,664 of 90,000 acres owned by Weyerhaeuser Company near the Beaufort-Craven county line, required state approval for the discharge into local waters, and the input of local residents through a public hearing held at Beaufort County Community College in March.

In March, 22 people spoke out against the state issuing a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit to Martin Marietta — against the ramifications of dumping so much fresh water into the tributaries, potentially changing the chemical makeup of an area known as a “nursery” for many aquatic species.

The Division of Water Quality report of public hearing comments and the public hearing officer’s recommendations resulted in the following additions: Martin Marietta Materials, Inc. will be required to limit the amount of iron in the water to 1 mg per liter as a protection to aquatic life; submit analysis of the wastewater following requirements from the EPA during the first year of operation; monitor both temperature and nutrient levels of the discharged water monthly; monitor two downstream locations for pH, salinity, temperature and turbidity (how much silt and soils are clouding the water); impose a limit of a maximum 6 million gallons per day (mgd) at two discharge areas, instead of basing flow on a monthly 4.5 mgd average; and reduce the acceptable pH range for the water from 6.0-9.0 to 5.5-8.5.

The permit also requires Martin Marietta to submit a plan for monitoring aquatic insect species that must be approved by DWQ.

“In our estimation, those are fairly minor changes to the permit and if you read through it, there’s nothing there that says they have to change their effluent in any way,” Deck said. “We’re disappointed in that.”

While monitoring is outlined in the permit, there is no language indicating Martin Marietta would have to take any action should results find a negative impact on local waters and wildlife, she explained.

Deck also pointed out there is no indication from DWQ, spoken or written, that the report and recommendations made by DWQ Public Hearing Officer Paul Rawls after the NPDES hearing were ever presented to Martin Marietta, a statement confirmed by Tom Belnick, head of NPDES permitting in a phone call on Monday.

“I think the public has a right to be upset about that,” Deck said. “Because you ask ‘What’s the purpose of the public hearing? What’s the purpose of the public hearing officer’s report if the comments are ignored?’ Those are questions that need to be asked of the new DENR,” Deck said.

By “new” Deck referred to structural changes taking place in the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources, where DWQ and the Division of Natural Resources are being merged and other agencies are being added to DENR, but not necessarily funded, she said.

“In my mind, the Martin Marietta example signifies how it’s going to be. There are big changes going on and I think the Martin Marietta permit just came at the wrong time,” Deck said.

Deck said she and PTRF’s partners at ECU will continue to monitor Blounts Creek waters so that if significant changes are found, they’ll have the data to back up their argument.

“The permit’s been issued, but there are always avenues for permits to be challenged,” Deck said.

According to Deck, the option of taking legal action to challenge the NPDES permit will be discussed at PTRF’s August board meeting.