News | May 22, 2024

Historic settlement provides lifeline for endangered Southern species 

A scientist holds endangered Yellow Lance mussels. (Yates Mill Aquatic Conservation Center)

Highway projects are destructive.  

A map showing where the Complete 540 project would impact endangered aquatic species habitat. (Yates Mill Aquatic Center)

Whether widening lanes or building a whole new road, these projects impact wildlife, divide communities, and harm our climate. And while highway expansion can provide temporary relief from traffic congestion, it almost always returns or even worsens as drivers take more trips and populations move to take advantage of the new infrastructure. 

So, when the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) laid out plans for the Complete 540 project outside of Raleigh in 2018, SELC stepped up with our local clients to challenge the highway because of the significant environmental impacts along its route, especially to endangered mussels, salamanders, and snails. 

Securing one of North Carolina’s largest environmental settlements 

Kym Meyer, who recently became SELC’s Litigation Director, led the charge on a trio of lawsuits to stop this massive highway project. When it became clear these challenges would result in years of litigation and cost overruns for the project, SELC attorneys agreed to discuss settlement options. After months of negotiations, SELC secured an agreement that included lasting improvements to transportation policies and around $50 million in land and species conservation programs to help address the harmful environmental impacts of I-540’s expansion. 

This unprecedented agreement is addressing some of the most important environmental issues in our state.

Kym Meyer, SELC Litigation Director

The settlement included durable transportation policies that make NCDOT consider climate change during major road construction, analyze projects’ greenhouse gas emissions, and come up with strategies and tools to reduce vehicle miles traveled and tailpipe pollution across the state. These policies are still in place and play an important role in addressing pollution from transportation, the leading cause of climate-changing pollution nationally and in the South

Mussels grow inside the facility. (Samantha Lewis/SELC)

“This unprecedented agreement is addressing some of the most important environmental issues in our state,” says Meyer. “The settlement provides North Carolina with important mechanisms for combatting climate change and is providing a lifeline for some of the state’s rarest and most endangered aquatic species.” 

The agreement also provided funding for stormwater management, conservation areas, and more than $5 million for a new aquatic species facility at North Carolina State University to help mitigate damage done by the highway to endangered species. The Yates Mill Aquatic Conservation Center (YMACC) staff opened its doors to a full crowd on May 17 after spending the year prepping its laboratories and propagation systems. 

The South’s ‘coral reefs’ 

Our region is known for many things: friendly people, iconic BBQ styles, scenic mountain and coastal views, but many don’t know that the southern U.S. is also a hotspot for aquatic species biodiversity.  

N.C. State University student interns work inside the Yates Mill Aquatic Conservation Center on. (Samantha Lewis/SELC)

The Southeast is home to more freshwater mussel species than any other region in the world.

Once completed, the I-540 highway expansion will cut directly across Swift Creek, which provides habitat for several endangered aquatic species such as the Neuse River waterdog (salamander), Carolina madtom (fish), and three types of mussels: dwarf wedge, yellow lance, and Atlantic pigtoe. 

YMACC Assistant Director Chris Eads says, “They are our unique natural treasures. When people think about biological diversity they might think about coral reefs or rainforests. Well, mussels are our coral reefs here in the Southeast.” 

The Southeast is home to more freshwater mussel species than any other region in the world.

An urgent need for mussel conservation 

Eads is an aquatic species expert who specializes in mussel propagation. To him, the mission of the center is clear — to promote the conservation of North Carolina’s imperiled aquatic fauna through research, education, and public outreach.  

Assistant Director Chris Eads at the new facility outside of Raliegh, N.C. (Samantha Lewis/SELC)

And this mission couldn’t be more important. Right now, freshwater mussels in our region are in crisis. 

Last year, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service delisted eight Southern mussels from the Endangered Species Act due to extinction. As sensitive creatures, widespread water pollution and development are causing freshwater mussel populations to collapse.   

There are lots of reasons we should care about mussels — we are more connected to them than you may think. The water they live in and filter is the same water that often flows into our drinking water reservoirs. Eads puts it clearly that, “If these things that are filtering our water are dying in the watershed where we get our water from, that tells us something — there’s something wrong with the streams that we get our drinking water from.” 

Eads’ work and the funding from SELC’s historic settlement is critical to giving some of the mussels of our region a fighting chance, but the mission at the YMACC isn’t purely scientific.  

Located in a public park, they have an outreach component to their work. Eads hopes they can start hosting school field trips and events to raise awareness for these incredible creatures soon. 

Meyer recently visited the facility with her stepson Will, who is interested in the sciences and attending N.C. State University — they were both amazed.