Conservation Groups Appeal Court Approval of Blounts Creek’s Destruction
Chapel Hill, N.C.— Conservation groups today appealed an earlier court ruling that would allow a proposed Martin Marietta mine to destroy a popular fishing creek in eastern North Carolina with wastewater from the mine and eliminate the rights of American citizens to protect their use and enjoyment of clean waters. The appeal filed in Beaufort County Superior Court by the Southern Environmental Law Center on behalf of the Sound Rivers (formerly the Pamlico-Tar River Foundation) and the N.C. Coastal Federation seeks to protect the creek and restore citizens’ right to enforce the law when the state government fails to do so.
On March 20, Administrative Judge Phil Berger Jr. ruled that downstream North Carolina residents and businesses could not challenge the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ permit authorizing the creek’s destruction. Although it defended the permit, DENR did not take a position on the conservation groups’ right to challenge the permit in the administrative court. DENR permitted the flooding of the natural creek with mining wastewater; allowing the destruction of Blounts Creek as it is today with an abundance of fish—including red drum and herring—in its waters which flow into the Pamlico River and eventually the Pamlico Sound.
“The earlier court’s ruling disregarded well-established state and federal laws that allow citizens who live downstream to protect our creeks and rivers when DENR and state government fail to do so,” said Geoff Gisler, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. “The scope of the earlier court decision would eliminate citizens’ right to enforce laws that protect favorite fishing and swimming holes as well as the water we drink.”
In contrast to the Clean Water Act’s purpose—to protect our waters and the numerous benefits they provide —DENR’s permit would allow Martin Marietta to dump its wastewater into creeks that simply cannot handle it, despite the availability of less damaging alternatives for handling the mine’s wastewater.
“Our members have fished, boated, paddled, and enjoyed Blounts Creek for decades,” said Heather Deck, Pamlico-Tar Riverkeeper. “We’re appealing this decision to protect those long-standing interests and to keep Blounts Creek healthy and natural.”
The discharge will transform the swampy headwater habitat into a fast-flowing stream consisting primarily of mine wastewater, permanently altering the creek’s diversity of life and abundance of high quality habitat for fish.
“Our state has historically recognized that the law protects places such as Blounts Creek for the use and enjoyment of citizens who fish, boat, and swim in its waters, including our members” said Todd Miller, executive director, N.C. Coastal Federation. “We’re asking the Superior Court to restore the rights of our members and to protect the creek.”
In order to develop a 649-acre open pit mine outside Vanceboro in Beaufort County, N.C., Martin Marietta plans to pump up to 12 million gallons per day of wastewater into Blounts Creek’s headwaters.
Martin Marietta admitted in its application that the altered creek would no longer support its existing mix of fish species and would no longer be considered swamp waters due to the increased flow, increased pH, and other changes to the creeks that would occur due to the discharge. 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.”
State wildlife agencies and the Environmental Protection Agency criticized the plan in response to the draft permit.
In violation of state and federal law and despite other agencies’ criticisms, DENR’s Division of Water Resources required no significant changes to address these problems in its final permit.
About the Southern Environmental Law Center
The Southern Environmental Law Center is a regional nonprofit using the power of the law to protect the health and environment of the Southeast (Virginia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama). Founded in 1986, SELC's team of almost 60 legal and policy experts represent more than 100 partner groups on issues of climate change and energy, air and water quality, forests, the coast and wetlands, transportation, and land use.