Judge retracts mining company’s discharge permit for Blounts Creek

Published 4:21 pm Monday, January 1, 2018



BLOUNTS CREEK — Blounts Creek residents, environmentalists, fishermen and more are ending 2017 on a high note because of a Superior Court judge’s ruling.

Friday, Sound Rivers Executive Director and Tar-Pamlico Riverkeeper Heather Jacobs Deck gathered members of Save Blounts Creek at Cotton Patch Landing and Marina to tell them the news: after a six-year battle, Superior Court Judge Joshua Willey Jr. not only recognized the grassroots organizations’ right to challenge a state permit giving Martin Marietta Materials permission to discharge up to 12 million gallons of freshwater per day into the brackish Blounts Creek, he also annulled the state permit that would have allowed them to do so.

“We’re very pleased with the outcome. There’s no doubt about that,” Deck said. “I was able to let everyone know first before it went out and about in the rest of the world.”

The saga started six years ago, when Martin Marietta proposed to build a 649-acre limestone pit mine in southern Beaufort County, and applied to use the headwaters of Blounts Creek to discharge water used in the mining process. The idea immediately faced opposition from a range of people, from business owners whose livelihoods rely on people fishing the creek and people who live on the creek, to recreational boaters and nature lovers in general. Their fear was that Martin Marietta’s mine discharge would transform the swampy, slow moving headwater habitat into a fast-flowing stream consisting primarily of mine wastewater, permanently altering the creek’s diversity of fish and abundance of high quality fish habitat, according to a press release from the Southern Environmental Law Center. Banding together, the group created Save Blounts Creek and held rallies and fundraisers that would bolster a legal challenge to the state’s permit by Sound Rivers, another grassroots environmental advocacy group founded in Washington in the 1980s. Sound Rivers and North Carolina Coastal Federation enlisted the aid of the SELC in September of 2013 to argue on their behalf.

Since, the case has traveled back and forth between the North Carolina Office of Administrative Hearings where Judge Phil Berger Jr. ruled twice that Sound Rivers and NCCF had no standing to challenge the permit and that the state had done all it needed to do to justify the permit’s issuance. First Superior Court Judge Douglas Parsons Jr. disagreed and sent the case back to Berger for a full evidentiary hearing, which included testimony from expert witnesses. Berger again ruled against Sound Rivers.

In October, Willey heard the case again in Superior Court in Carteret County; last week he ruled that Berger had erred in his decision in two ways: the challenge to the permit was, indeed, made by people impacted by the decision to issue it and that the Division of Water Resources failed to ensure compliance with the biological integrity standard, meaning the agency failed to protect the indigenous aquatic species of Blounts Creek.

Under federal and state law, North Carolina cannot authorize discharges that will violate water quality standards by changing the natural mix of species in a water body or by destroying uses that are protected by a supplemental classification, such as “swamp waters,” according to the SELC press release.

Bob Daw, a Blount Creek’s resident and one of the founders of Save Blounts Creek, said it was a great day for the people gathered at Cotton Patch, as well as for future generations.

“I guess I’m just too old to go around the yard doing jumping jacks and flips and stuff, but it was a stir of emotions I hadn’t felt in a long time,” Daw said about hearing the news. “I had tears; I saw other tears in people, and all the mixing and mingling with people there for a few minutes and pats on the back for celebration, I was just overwhelmed with it. There I was standing on the deck, looking out on the creek, knowing what it has been forever, and now we have a much-improved chance for it to continue to be that. … I’ve been repeatedly told ‘Don’t nobody care about frogs and salamanders, Bob. You ought to just shut up about that,’ but it was the swamp critters that turned the judge’s thoughts.”

Deck credited the victory to the people who refused to give up the fight for their creek. She also credited the court with upholding the law and protecting the “special waterways of Beaufort County.”

“This is a win for the community. They persevered over six years, which is not easy to do,” Deck said.