groups take another route to stop Bonner Bridge replacement
BY CATHERINE KOZAK
Coastal Review Online
as a federal lawsuit challenging a proposed replacement for the Herbert
C. Bonner Bridge in Dare County is churning its way through a federal
court, another legal action has suspended the state permit allowing
construction of the bridge over Oregon Inlet to begin.
Southern Environmental Law Center, representing Defenders of Wildlife
and the National Wildlife Refuge Association, last week filed a
petition with the N.C. Coastal Resources Commission for a hearing to
appeal the major CAMA permit issued on Sept. 20.
By law, the project has been stopped until the matter is resolved, but
related tasks can continue.
does not impact any of the work that we’re doing now,” Greer Beaty, a
spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation, said
Beaty said that several permits from federal
agencies are pending, and the $216 million project is on target to
start construction in early 2013.
“We’re at a point in our
work where we’re still finishing up design and testing and things of
that sort,” she said. “This does not change our timetable at all. We’re
going to keep working.”
The 2.5-mile Bonner Bridge,
situated in the notoriously wild waters of Oregon Inlet, was opened in
1963 and is about 20 years overdue for replacement. DOT inspects and
repairs it regularly and says it is safe to cross. As the only link to
Hatteras Island, the span is crucial to the tourism-dependent economy
on Hatteras and Ocracoke islands and to the more than 5,000 residents
who live year-round on the islands.
chairman, Robert Emory, must respond to the request by Oct. 23. If he
decides that a hearing is not warranted --- petitioners must prove that
the permit decision violated a law or rule, that they are directly
affected, and that their request is not frivolous --- then the law
center can petition for judicial review in state Superior Court in Dare
or Wake counties.
If Emory agrees to grant the hearing, SELC
must file a petition for a contested case hearing with the state Office
of Administrative Hearings. The case would be heard by an
administrative law judge, whose ruling is final but reviewable by state
It is not unusual to see such requests in
controversial projects, said Michele Walker, CRC spokeswoman. “We were
not surprised,” she said.
Considering the continued complexity
and challenging nature of the project, Walker said that the commission
has taken pains to ensure that regulatory requirements have been met.
“We were able to work with DOT and other agencies upfront in planning,”
Outten, Dare County manager and attorney, said that he has been assured
all along that DOT has done everything possible to comply with rules
and regulations, especially in anticipation of a lawsuit being filed --
as happened -- after the final step in the planning process was
“We expect that the Southern Environmental Law
Center will exhaust every avenue that they can,” Outten said, “to slow
down or stop construction of that bridge.”
After more than 20
years of countless inter-agency meetings and heated public hearings,
intermittent designing, planning and redesigning, not to mention
behind-the-curtain political head-butting and arm-twisting, DOT finally
awarded a $215.8 million contract in July 2011 to design-build team PCL
Civil Constructors Inc. and HDR Engineering Inc. of the Carolinas.
Completion is targeted for 2016, and demolition of the old bridge would
begin the next year, with only a small portion left in place to use as
a fishing pier.
The Coastal Area Management Act permit was
issued last month after a 30-day public comment period and reviews by
four federal and 10 state agencies.
Walker, with the CRC, said of the three public comments received, two
were in favor, and one, from SELC, was opposed.
petitioners said that the high erosion rate at hot spots on the island,
coupled with growing risks from sea-level rise and climate change, make
the proposed bridge a costly, wasteful and impractical option. Instead,
they favor a previously planned 17.5-mile bridge that would bypass Pea
Island National Wildlife Refuge, or alternately, using high-speed
ferries to transport vehicles and people.
But DOT said the
so-called long bridge --- costing more than $1 billion --- would be
impossible to fund, and that high-speed ferries would be inadequate.
The agency plans to address issues with Highway 12 in the future on an
In the request for a hearing, Julia Youngman,
SELC’s senior attorney, contends, in part, that the permit should have
been denied because the bridge project could harm water quality in
Pamlico Sound and wildlife habitat in Pea Island National Wildlife
Refuge, as well as historic and cultural resources. Youngman also said
that the state exaggerated the cost of the rejected 17.5-mile bridge
and didn’t bother to seriously study the use of fast, shallow-draft
Youngman also contends that one of DOT’s more
“egregious” violations of federal environmental laws is the way the
project has been segmented. The CAMA permit only covers the first phase
of the project --- construction of a new bridge adjacent to the
existing one. But, she argues, the effects of the maintenance of the
road through Pea Island to Rodanthe, maintaining the rock groin on the
south end of the bridge and the two bridges that will be constructed to
repair damage in 2011 from Hurricane Irene should have been evaluated
along with bridge construction.
In an e-mail, Youngman
said that the group is “hoping to secure NCDOT’s compliance with
federal and state laws, including CAMA,” but declined to say whether it
wants the agency to change the project.
“Yet again,” she
wrote,” NCDOT has asked a fellow agency to approve its plan by
considering only a small part of the entire Bonner Bridge replacement
project and turning a blind eye to the enormous problems with the
remainder of the project that, if NCDOT acknowledged them, would likely
preclude the permit from being issued.”
Many Outer Bankers
objected to the long bridge because of safety concerns, but mainly
because it cuts off access to unspoiled Pea Island, where surfing,
birding, beachcombing and swimming are favorite activities for locals
Hatteras resident Beth Midgett, chairwoman of
the Citizens Action Committee to Replace the Bonner Bridge, said that
the bottom line is that the nearly 50-year-old Bonner Bridge is running
out of time. If the project is delayed much more, she said, it will
become hazardous to cross. And if load restrictions are put in place
because of structural deterioration, the daily and financial hardship,
she said, would be significant.
“This will shortly be a public
safety issue,” she said. “We are pouring money into this thing. In the
off-season, it’s been in a fairly constant state of repair.”
mocked Youngman’s “pie-in-the-sky” ideas about using ferries to
transport the nearly three million people who travel annually through
“Perhaps even better would be jet packs from the mainland,”
for residents, Midgett said, the bridge is the only land route to the
rest of the world. It represents their livelihoods, their lifestyles
and their independence.
“This isn’t an expansion project,” she said. “This is our existence ---
and there’s a huge difference.”
story is provided courtesy of Coastal Review Online, the coastal news
and features service of the N.C. Coastal Federation. You can read other
stories about the N.C. coast at www.nccoast.org.)
to read the Southern Environmental Law Center filing that requests a
third party review of the state’s CAMA permit to replace the Bonner