December 6, 2013

Governor presses environmental groups
to end lawsuit at press briefing

By CATHERINE KOZAK


After viewing the compromised area on the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge on Friday, Gov. Pat McCrory said that placement of dredged sand may offer a temporary solution to dangerous scour that compelled the state to close the bridge this week for safety reasons.

Engineers with the state Department of Transportation showed the governor where a group of pilings under the bridge have lost severe levels of sand, or scoured, which undermined the integrity of the structure.

“It’s getting too close for comfort,” McCrory said at later press briefing at Oregon Inlet Fishing Center.

Dredging of sand from the inlet’s navigational channel will begin Saturday and is expected to last for about two days, weather permitting. The sand will be deposited in the area under the bent –a group of pilings – on the south end of the bridge where the serious scour has been observed by sonar and divers.
 
The governor was joined by officials with Dare County, the DOT and the Ferry Division, as well as numerous citizens concerned about access to Hatteras Island.

The crowd inside the fishing center store enjoyed a laugh when McCrory mistakenly identified Dare County commissioner Allen Burrus as “the president” of Hatteras Island.

McCrory reiterated previous statements made by him and Secretary of Transportation Tony Tata that called for environmental groups to withdraw a lawsuit against the DOT that has stopped construction of replacement of the 50-year-old bridge over Oregon Inlet.

Citing a ruling earlier this year by U.S. District Judge Louise Flanagan on a separate lawsuit against the project that favored DOT, McCrory characterized the groups’ opposition to the new bridge as a “pseudo environmental issue that does not exist.”
“They’re blocking this effort,” the governor said. “It’s inexcusable and we’re calling them out.”

McCrory said he will contact board members and staff of the environmental organizations and urge them to drop the legal action. He added that some of the environmental groups’ board members may not know about the legal action against the state.
The governor confirmed that state Secretary of Revenue Lyons Gray is a member of the Defenders of Wildlife Board of Trustees.

“He was not aware of them being a plaintiff and he is going to try to get them to change their mind,” the governor said. “And if they don’t change their mind, he’s going to resign.”

In a response to a statement made in a newspaper by one attorney for the plaintiff, contending that the DOT still needed to secure permits for the bridge, McCrory said that the court’s hold on the CAMA permit is the only thing that is preventing construction.

A spokesperson for DOT, Nicole Meister, later explained that federal permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Coast Guard, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have not yet been issued, but none of them are expected to be denied. The Corps permit is in the process of being re-issued because of a technicality, she said, and the Coast Guard , as a policy, cannot issue its permit until the legal matter is resolved. The permit with the Fish and Wildlife for the easement deed is “working through the process,” Meister said, and is not considered a problem.

Meister said that design-build projects, like the planned Bonner project, are routinely started before every permit is in hand, and the sole reason that bridge construction has not begun at Oregon Inlet is because the lawsuit stayed the CAMA permit.

The new bridge will not face the same environmental challenges, the governor said, because it is designed with much longer spans and fewer and deeper pilings.

While acknowledging the difficulty the closure has presented for Dare and Hyde county residents, McCrory said that the bridge will not be reopened until he can be assured that it is safe.  And he also does not intend to subject the engineers and divers to unduly hazardous conditions created by strong currents or storms.
 
“This is a dangerous operation to fix this bridge,” McCrory said. “This is an engineering challenge, an environmental challenge, dealing with the elements. There’s going to be some short-term pain here.” 

Part of the pain, he added, is also to state coffers, which tapped into emergency funds to pay for the extra manpower for ferry operations and bridge repairs.

“This is costing the taxpayers in all of North Carolina because of this delay,” he said.

It is not yet known how long the bridge may have to stay closed, DOT officials said.

The DOT will take additional scans and inspections of the scoured area after the dredging operation is completed. At that point, the department will be able to determine what steps are necessary to get the bridge reopened.


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