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Judge asks for extension in Blounts Creek case

The judge who will decide between those seeking to protect Blounts Creek and the mining company that wants to use it as a discharge site has asked for another 30 days to make his decision.

Administrative Law Judge Phil Berger Jr. was granted a 30-day extension in which to continue his review of the challenge of a state-issued National Pollution Discharge Elimination Permit by Sound Rivers, a local environmental advocacy organization, and North Carolina Coastal Federation.

Berger has been reviewing the case since the close of an evidentiary hearing in June, in which he heard testimony from state experts, consultants for the mining company Martin Marietta Materials, as well as stakeholders in the Save Blounts Creek effort. The case has bounced around North Carolina courts since September 2013, when Sound Rivers and NCCF, with the assistance of Southern Environmental Law Center, filed a petition challenging the state permit issued to Martin Marietta, that could allow a discharge of up to 12 million gallons of fresh water per day into the headwaters of Blounts Creek. The environmental groups and backers whose livelihoods depend on the health of the creek have argued that the influx of water used in the limestone-mining process would change the pH of the brackish creek, potentially decimating aquatic life in the state-designated nursery for saltwater species. N.C. Department of Justice and Martin Marietta attorneys have argued the creek’s ecosystem may change the pH, but it would promote the proliferation of other species.

It’s not the first time the case has come before Berger: in January of 2015, Berger initially ruled that Sound Rivers and NCCF had no standing to challenge the permit in court. However, on appeal, Superior Court Judge Douglas Parsons Jr. decided the opposite and sent the case back to Berger for a full evidentiary hearing. Berger, at the time, said he would need up to three months to review the case — with the extension, four months.

“We’re not really sure about the circumstances of the extension,” said Sound Rivers riverkeeper Heather Jacobs Deck.

Capt. Bob Boulden, one of the founders of the Save Blounts Creek grassroots efforts to protect the creek and owner of Miss Bea Charters, testified during the June hearing. To Boulden, the extension could be based on one of two things.

“It’s a political ploy so it doesn’t stack up around election time, or he’s actually looking at it, and perhaps he doesn’t want it to end up back in Superior Court here and get another black eye over it,” Boulden said.

In September, the group of Blounts Creek residents, marina owners, fishermen, boaters, kayakers and environmentalists who make up the Save Blounts Creek effort were named the North Carolina Wildlife Federation’s Conservation Organization of the Year for 2015 — a testament to the group’s lasting dedication to their cause, no matter how long it takes.

“We’re looking forward to having a resolution to this issue that will afford long-term protections for the creek,” Deck said. “In the meantime, we’ll just continue pushing forward.”