VANCEBORO – Worried neighbors of a proposed limestone quarry near Blounts Creek in Beaufort County spoke up at public meetings, wrote dozens of letters, signed petitions and contacted the governor to ask that millions of gallons of freshwater a day be discharged somewhere other than their brackish creek.
The state issued the permit anyway, and opponents of Martin Marietta Materials’ planned mining operation near Vanceboro are now pinning their hopes on a legal challenge. The Pamlico-Tar River Foundation and the N.C. Coastal Federation contend in a petition filed in September that the permit violates state water quality standards and the federal Clean Water Act.
The groups are asking a state administrative law judge to vacate the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, or NPDES, permit issued in July and send it back to the state Division of Water Resources to be reconsidered. The case is expected to be heard in the spring or early summer.
In their comments about the $25 million, 50-year project, many people also expressed fears that de-watering the planned mine would draw down the aquifer that could dry out their wells or allow saltwater to intrude. Some also feared the draw down could create sinkholes and earthquakes.
But residents, most of whom live in three subdivisions along the creek, are mostly focused on the potential harm of flooding the swampy headwaters of the creek everyday with as much as 12 million gallons of freshwater. The permit allows the company to discharge the water pumped from the Castle Hayne aquifer for the limestone quarry into two separate tributaries of Blounts Creek, a favorite recreational waterway in Beaufort County renowned for its great fishing.
When fully developed, the proposed quarry will mine limestone from a 649-acre open pit on 1,664 acres within a 90,000-acre tract owned by Weyerhaeuser Co.
The environmental groups say that the discharge – co-mingled groundwater and stormwater – will permanently alter the pH and the salinity of the headwaters that are nursery areas and habitat for numerous indigenous fish and submerged vegetation and transform the still swamp into a fast-flowing stream.
Classified swamp waters are naturally acidic and quiet. State water quality standards require pH levels in surface water to be “normal” for area waters, ranging from 6.0 to 9.0, or as low as 4.3 in natural swamps. The freshwater discharge, according to the state, will have a neutral pH of about 7.0, and could raise the creek pH level to 6.5-6.9. Its natural level is 4.0-5.5.
But the state water division said that there would be minimal effects to the downstream water quality, and if anything, the discharge would create more biodiversity in the swamp. According to information the company provided to the state, the flow is expected to be steady and take about 10 years to reach capacity.
“The gist of the problem is you’re changing an entire eco-system,” said Bob Boulden, owner of Miss Bea Charters, a business that takes people on fishing and sightseeing trips on the creek on his 22-foot vessel.
Boulden, who had previously worked for 32 years as an environmental engineer, said that the state should be more concerned about the effects on the creek than allowing the company to use the least expensive disposal method.
Other costlier options that were considered include re-injection of the water into the ground or offering it for use in a municipal system.
“Now we’re going to allow Martin Marietta to screw it up,” Boulden said, “and in one or two years down the road, there’s a bazillion fish dead and all that good stuff. And we’re going to modify the permit? I don’t know how we’re going to do that . . . A swamp that was there for 25,000 years isn’t there anymore.”
A designated fish spawning area, the creek supports largemouth bass, yellow perch, American eel, red drum, blueback herring, spotted seatrout, striped bass, shad, alewife and more. Boulden said that he often sees pods of dolphins on his trips.
Heather Deck, Riverkeeper for the Pamlico-Tar River Foundation, said that a recommendation by the state official who directed the public hearing on the permit to consider discharging into the Neuse River Basin, rather than Blounts Creek, “seemed to have been ignored.”
Boaters rallied on Blounts Creek last summer to oppose the proposed mine. Photo: WCTI-TV
The bottom line, she said, is that the discharge into the creek is a violation of the Clean Water Act, and the permit cannot be issued. Whatever checks and balances, such as increased monitoring, modifications and reviews, which the state inserted in the current permit, she said, would not ensure protection of the waterway. And once a project is underway, she added, it is practically unheard of that permits are revoked because of violations.
“I would like the division to show me when they’ve ever pulled a permit after it’s been given,” Deck said. “It doesn’t happen and it won’t happen.”
Responding to comments at a public hearing last year and collected during the public comment period, the final permit did include changes to the draft permit, including:
- The company must submit a site-specific analysis of the effluent within the first year.
- Limits in iron in the effluent must meet acceptable state levels.
- Effluent nutrient levels and temperature must be monitored monthly
- Additional in-stream monitoring must be conducted for pH, salinity, temperature, and turbidity.
- Reduction of effluent pH limit range was made from 6.0-9.0 to 5.5-8.5.
Despite criticism from other agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency and the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, no significant changes were made to the permit, according to a press release from the Southern Environmental Law Center, which is representing the environmental groups.
A mining permit and a water withdrawal permit were issued earlier and have not been challenged. It’s not clear if the company must also obtain an air permit before starting the project, Deck said. Although she said that she is not aware of the project starting, it has not been stayed by the legal action.
As to residents fear about the consequences of the withdrawal from the aquifer, Gabrielle Chianese, a state hydrologist, said that under conditions in the permit issued on Nov. 15, the site will be monitored by the mine company and overseen by the state regulators. Monthly reports are required on groundwater levels, water withdrawal amounts, chloride levels and zone of influence.
Martin Marietta must also measure static water levels six months before beginning its water withdrawal.
Chianese said that the state has several research stations in the area that will be able to gauge the accuracy of the company’s reporting. Signs of saltwater intrusion happen gradually, she added.
“We would never let it get to a point where it would be a problem,” she said.
Residents with older well pumps that could be affected by a slight drawdown in the aquifer will have their wells replaced by the company at no expense to them, she said.
Chianese said the Castle Hayne is a “very plentiful” aquifer. It is shallow and recharges at a rapid rate. For example, she said, the PCS mine, just to the east of the proposed Vanceboro mine, is permitted to withdraw up to 78 million gallons a day from the Castle Hayne.
“So we have good evidence what happens with this aquifer and what can sustain it,” she said. “We don’t take this lightly at all.”
The state Division of Energy, Minerals and Land Resources will address any reported sinkholes or earthquakes, Chianese said.
But Jimmy Daniels, owner of the Cotton Patch Landing, a marina and bait and tackle shop on the creek, said there is no way to defend permitting a project that will change the ecology of Blounts Creek. Like most members of the community, he said, recreational fishermen are convinced the discharge will hurt the creek and, as a consequence, fishing.
“We have fishing tournaments here,” Daniels said. “The operator of the tournament said if this takes place, they’ll pull out. It’s a bad situation.”
What disturbs him, he said, is that for a little more expense, Martin Marietta, a multi-million dollar corporation, has multiple other options to harmlessly dispose of the wastewater, including pumping it into a nearby lake.
Daniels said that throughout the planning process, company representatives have not spoken to the community about its concerns.
“They have not communicated in any way,” he said. “They don’t have to, because DWR has bent over backwards to accommodate them.”