Press Release | August 29, 2011

Groups Call on North Carolina to Build Safer Route after Sea Reclaims Outer Banks Highway

Longer Bridge Option for Hatteras Less Exposed and Safer for People and Refuge

Conservation groups today called on the North Carolina Department of Transportation to rethink its plan for replacing Bonner Bridge at its current location and instead build a safer, more reliable access route for Outer Banks residents and tourists after the ocean created multiple new inlets and destroyed sections of N.C. Highway 12 during Hurricane Irene, cutting off the barrier island again right before a holiday weekend. Storms continue to prove the warnings by NCDOT consultants, federal agencies, and university scientists that over wash is inevitable for stretches of N.C. Highway 12 within and near Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge.

“The state’s present scheme to replace Bonner Bridge at its current location and ignore the repeated, inevitable breaching south of the bridge is irresponsible,” said Derb Carter, director, Carolinas Office of the Southern Environmental Law Center. “The state should put reliability and people’s safety first, build the safer, less-exposed ‘long bridge’ that bypasses the most rapidly eroding section of the island, and let the ocean take its inevitable course in the wildlife refuge.”

Ignoring repeated warnings and growing evidence that N.C. 12 cannot be maintained through the wildlife refuge, and without any plans or funds secured for highway maintenance, NCDOT’s plan to replace the bridge in its current location will leave residents and tourists vulnerable. Its plan relies on sections of N.C. 12 that were destroyed by Hurricane Irene and no longer exist. It will leave residents and tourists dependent on ferries to get on or off Hatteras Island each time a storm predictably washes out sections of N.C. 12. NCDOT depends repeatedly on federal taxpayer funds each time N.C. 12 washes out and strands people on Hatteras Island instead of seeking a better access route for the long-term security of the island and people.

“Hurricane Irene has rendered the Bonner Bridge a bridge to nowhere,” said Evan Hirsche, President of the National Wildlife Refuge Association. “It’s a powerful reminder that coastal roads are no match for powerful waves and flooding.”

Before Hurricane Irene destroyed the road, residents and tourists traveled this exposed section of Highway 12 to reach the aging Bonner Bridge, the only non-ferry route to get on or off Hatteras Island. The current damage is reminiscent of previous washouts in the same section of highway in the refuge, including ones in 2006 and 2009.

Coastal scientists have warned that sections of N.C. 12 are extremely vulnerable to erosion, over wash, and the creation of new inlets. The beaches south of the existing bridge are among the fastest eroding beaches in North Carolina with average rates in some areas over 12 feet a year. Conservation groups outlined these concerns in comments filed with NCDOT on November 13, 2009. In 2006, expert consultants hired by NCDOT warned that “If current erosion trends continue without interruption, 4 miles of NC 12 would be either in the ocean or less than 230 feet from the shoreline (and subject to regular over wash) by 2010, including most of NC12 in the southern and northern ends of the Refuge.”

A safer, less-exposed “long bridge” replacement option would replace the most vulnerable section of road with a more sheltered route on the sound-side and behind the barrier island. In 2005, NCDOT estimated it would cost taxpayers less to build a long bridge across the sound rather than a short bridge dependent on a failing access road that must continually be rebuilt until it finally succumbs to the sea.

In 2003, all state and federal agencies involved in the bridge replacement project agreed that building a long bridge to bypass the eroding beaches of the wildlife refuge was the preferred option for Hatteras Island. Political pressure, however, forced the agencies to reconsider. If the project had gone forward according to schedule at that time, the bridge across the sound would be completed and now open to traffic.

Note to Editors:
Aerial photos of the new inlets across N.C. 12 are available with appropriate photo credit to the photographer. Contact Western Carolina University’s Rob Young at [email protected] or 828-506-2216; or Andy Coburn at [email protected] or 828-227-3027

About Defenders of Wildlife
Defenders of Wildlife is dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities. With more than 1 million members, supporters and subscribers, Defenders of Wildlife is a leading advocate for innovative solutions to safeguard our wildlife heritage for generations to come.

About National Wildlife Refuge Association
The mission of the National Wildlife Refuge Association is to conserve America¹s wildlife heritage for future generations through strategic programs that protect, enhance, and expand the National Wildlife Refuge System and the landscapes beyond its boundaries that secure its ecological integrity.


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