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Blounts Creek case now awaits Court of Appeals decision

 

About 20 Blounts Creeks residents and business owners made it to the courthouse Wednesday to witness the latest hearing in a six-year-long court battle over a Beaufort County creek.

The hearing, held at the North Carolina Court of Appeals in Raleigh, is an effort to overturn a ruling made in December 2017 by Superior Court Judge Joshua Willey Jr. that not only gave the environmental organization Sound Rivers, Blounts Creek residents and business owners the right to challenge a permit issued by the state to mining company Martin Mariette Materials, but retracted the permit altogether.

“The record’s set, so it’s not like there’s any new information being argued,” said Heather Deck, executive director of Sound Rivers. “It was still the same arguments. We just continue to try to tell the story that this is a special place and worth protecting, for not only the people who live there, but the many who come to visit and use the creek in a variety of ways.”

Deck has been working on this case for nearly eight years — since 2011, when the Division of Water Resources began researching the prospect of MMM discharging up to 12 million gallons of water per day into the brackish headwaters of Blounts Creek, part of the operation of a 649-acre pit mine proposed in southern Beaufort County. Sound Rivers, North Carolina Coastal Federation and Blounts Creek supporters, with representation from the Southern Environmental Law Center, believe the Division of Water Resources did not do its due diligence in issuing the permit and ignored the objection of several other state agencies regarding potential impact to a creek designated by the state as a nursery for saltwater species. The concern was the practice would permanently alter the creek’s diversity of fish and abundance of high quality fish habitat, which led to the court challenge. Since 2013, it’s bounced from the Office of Administrative Hearings to Superior Court several times, before landing in Willey’s courtroom.

Though Willey issued his ruling in 2017, and mediation meetings were scheduled between the separate parties, they could not agree on another way to dispose of the wastewater.

Wednesday’s hearing was held before a panel of three of the 15 judges who make up the North Carolina Court of Appeals: Judge Donna Stroud, Judge Tobias Hampson and Judge Christopher Brook. Each side was given half an hour to frame its argument, with judges asking questions to clarify material. If the panel votes 3-0 in favor of Sound Rivers, the state and mining interests can petition the North Carolina Supreme Court to hear the case, but the Supreme Court is not required to take it up. If the vote is 2-1, the losing party can appeal to the N.C. Supreme Court where it will be heard, according to SELC attorney Kathleen Sullivan.

Deck said it will likely be several months before any new decision is handed down.

“You certainly can’t ever guess what the outcome will be,” Deck said. “We’ll just have to wait and see.”