EPA questions bridge project

Unclear if objections will put halt on project

By Cindy Beamon
Staff Writer
The Daily Advance

Even though state lawmakers have appropriated funding for a
mid-county bridge in Currituck, a federal agency is questioning the
need for the project at all. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says a bridge joining Currituck’s mainland to the Outer Banks would have “significant environmental impacts” and recommends the North Carolina Turnpike Authority rethink its plan to build a $800 million bridge altogether.

Widening U.S. Highway 158 and N.C. Highway 12 would be the better
alternative — both economically and environmentally, said Chris
Militscher, environmental scientist for EPA. Adding a costly, seven-mile bridge across Currituck Sound does not make sense, Militscher said, questioning why it has become the favored option for the Turnpike Authority. “There are reasons behind this that have not been fully discussed,” Militscher said.

Jennifer Harris, director of planning and environmental studies for
the Turnpike Authority, said the bridge is an “important project
for the region and the state” and has long been supported by state
legislators and county leaders. She also says the EPA’s suggestion about upgrades to U.S. 158 and N.C. 12 has one major flaw. Widening the highways may cost less, but it’s “not financially viable,” she said.
No funding is available for the option the EPA is recommending,
Harris said. Without a bridge, the project to ease summer beach
traffic congestion would have no funding, she said.

In June, state lawmakers appropriated $15 million a year for the next three years and $28 million afterward for up to 50 years to subsidize construction for the mid-county bridge project. The state plans to pay for the rest with federal loans and private financing in a public-private partnership with ACS Dragodos, a Spanish bridge building company. Tolls collected from motorists crossing the span are expected to help recoup most of the construction costs while state “gap funds” will pay for the rest.

At the heart of the EPA’s objections to the bridge are questions about its need. The seasonal traffic congestion can best be remedied by widening roads, not by building a costly bridge during economically tight times, Militscher said. A letter from Heinz J. Mueller, chief of the EPA Program Office, to Harris on June 4 makes the same point. “Shrinking transportation dollars and increased maintenance and repair costs for infrastructure in areas that are very vulnerable to severe weather conditions such as high winds and storm surges and salt air and water should be a very important consideration for decision-makers,” the letter states. Mueller also outlines a number of environmental concerns about the project in the letter, part of the federal agency’s official response to the Turnpike Authority’s Draft Environmental Impact statement on the bridge project.

Rain water runoff from the bridge is one of EPA’s major concerns, according to Mueller’s letter. EPA recommends the runoff be collected and treated so that contaminants from cars will not be washed into Currituck Sound. Harris said the EPA’s proposal is the “most costly” and that other less costly alternatives would be just as effective.
Another big problem for EPA is the impact on Maple Swamp, designated as a Significant Natural Heritage Area. One of Turnpike’s alternatives calls for filling the swamp, an option that has drawn criticism from EPA and Aydlett residents, although for different reasons.

Aydlett residents have opposed the option because of its impact on the neighborhood. EPA opposes it because of the harm to wetlands. But the remedy, building a bridge across the wetlands, also has harmful effects, Militscher says. Damage caused by erosion, invasive plants, dredging, and flooding, as well as negative impacts on fish and wildlife are among the EPA’s concerns about the bridge project.

“EPA’s review has identified significant environmental impacts to jurisdictional waters of the U.S. that should be avoided in order to adequately protect the environment, potential degradation of water quality to Currituck Sound, severe impacts to fish and wildlife resources, and the indirect and cumulative effects within the project study area,” Mueller’s letter reads. How much EPA’s comments will influence plans for the bridge remains uncertain.

Jennifer Symonds, Aydlett resident and longtime opponent of the bridge project, said she hopes the EPA findings will be the “final nail in the coffin for this thing.” Symonds said she also expects lawsuits once the Turnpike Authority seeks to acquire land for the project.
EPA is more cautious about the impact of its objections, however.
Militscher said EPA concerns are “very serious” but stopped short of predicting how the project may be influenced by the agency’s objections. In rare cases, the EPA seeks federal arbitration, but such action requires approval from multiple layers of EPA’s administration, he said.

Although EPA concerns are unlikely to halt the project, they could force delays. Environmental issues will need to be addressed before permits from the various regulatory agencies can be obtained, Militscher said.

Harris said the EPA’s comments will be considered along with other comments from the public and various state and federal agencies.
“(Their comments) are important, and we are optimistic through cooperation and discussion that we can arrive at a solution that addresses their concerns in a satisfactory manner,” she said.

The Turnpike Authority plans to meet this month with the EPA and other state and federal agencies to discuss comments on the Turnpike Authority’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement. Harris said she hopes the agencies will reach consensus on a preferred alternative and discuss ways to address specific concerns about the project.
Before a Final Environmental Impact Statement is released, the Turnpike Authority will need to make adjustments based on comments from public hearings and the agencies, Harris said. The agencies will need to discuss how to minimize environmental impacts before her agency prepares its final impact statement, she said.

The Turnpike Authority plans to issue its FIS in September, although delays are possible if more work is needed to satisfy the agencies’ concerns, Harris said. The timetable “is contingent on how fast we are able to meet with agencies and reach a point where they are comfortable with moving on,” she said.