Challenge to Blounts Creek discharge permit heads back to court Friday

Published 7:42 pm Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The case pitting the state and a mining company against environmental organizations and Blounts Creek stakeholders is heading back to court Friday.

Friday’s hearing is the fourth to determine whether North Carolina Division of Water Resources followed state and federal law in issuing a permit to Martin Marietta Materials Inc. in 2013. The permit would allow the mining company — which first proposed the 649-acre limestone pit mine in southern Beaufort County in 2011 — to discharge up to 12 million gallons of fresh water per day into the headwaters of Blounts Creek.

In September 2013, Sound Rivers, a local environmental advocacy organization, and North Carolina Coastal Federation legally challenged the permit. Since, the case has bounced back and forth between the Office of Administrative Hearings and appeals heard in Superior Court.

According to Heather Jacobs Deck, executive director of Sound Rivers, the key question is whether the state appropriately issued the permit based on state and federal law, specifically the Clean Water Act.

What has kept the case in court is Superior Court Judge Douglas Parsons’ finding that OAH Judge Phil Berger Jr.’s decision upholding the permit was problematic in regard to state and federal law, as well as whether the plaintiffs had any right to challenge the permit. Parsons ordered a second hearing in front of the OAH, one that included expert witness testimony and evidence. In November 2016, months after the second hearing, Berger again upheld the permit and questioned Sound Rivers’ and NCCF’s right to challenge the permit when harm to the creek had not yet been proven.

“We tried to do everything not to go down this path, but, in the end, we believe that it will be harmful to the creek,” Deck said.

Expert witnesses on one side have argued that a discharge of fresh water into the headwaters of the brackish creek will damage existing ecology in a creek the state designated as a “nursery” for saltwater species. On the other side, expert witnesses have said the change to the water’s pH may harm some species, but will allow others to flourish.

According to Deck, the issue is not the mine itself, but finding a better solution — one backed by the state.

“From our perspective at Sound Rivers, this dispute relates to a discharge of an enormous amount of water from the mine that doesn’t have to happen,” Deck said. “We are not in dispute of the mine itself, but there are other options currently available to the company that would be much less harmful to the environment and would also be compliant with state law. It’s unfortunate that we had to go to court when a sensible solution exists.”

Deck said another option is discharging the water in the other direction, through the lumber company Weyerhaeuser’s land, which would have far less ecological impact as compared to discharging fresh water into a brackish creek.

“There are miles of ditches that are meant to drain the land, and multiple locations of that have miles to go before they hit the Neuse (River) — lots of fresh water,” Deck said.

While Parsons ordered that he retain jurisdiction should the case show back up in Superior Court, he ultimately recused himself from the case. Friday’s hearing will be held in Carteret County Superior Court, before Judge Josh Wiley. If Wiley rules in favor of Sound Rivers and NCCF, the case will continue its court journey.

“Friday, it’s just the attorneys (in front of the judge). They’ll be arguing from the existing record that has been established over the last several years,” Deck said. “Of course, the judge will ask questions to clarify positions. I wouldn’t anticipate that the judge would make a decision on Friday. It’s a pretty big record.”

Friday’s hearing is set for 10 a.m. at the Carteret County Courthouse. Deck said there is a contingent of Blounts Creek stakeholders who plan to attend.

“On the community front, they’ve been continuing to stay very active and engaged,” Deck said, adding that a Sept. 30 Save Blounts Creek boat rally brought out more than 200 people onto the water. “That was a wonderful outpouring of support from the people in the community.”