Environmental lawyers who have the state’s $216 million Oregon Inlet bridge replacement project tied up in federal court now are waging a parallel fight at the state level, where an administrative law judge is expected to open new hearings.
A Wake County Superior Court judge ruled last week that two conservation groups deserved a hearing on their claim that the state Coastal Resources Commission was wrong to issue an environmental permit, one of several the state Department of Transportation needs before it can start building the new 2.8-mile bridge.
DOT wants to replace the deteriorating Bonner Bridge, built in 1962, which carries N.C. 12 over Oregon Inlet on the Outer Banks. The new bridge is part of a bigger, long-range project to shore up a stretch of N.C. 12 that is regularly damaged by coastal storms for 12 miles from Oregon Inlet through Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge to the village of Rodanthe.
Lawyers for the Southern Environmental Law Center, representing the conservation groups, argue that the state should not have issued a Coastal Area Management Act permit. They contend that the bridge will violate state and federal laws and hurt coastal wildlife, and they say permitting agencies are required to consider the full length of the bridge-and-road project.
“Instead of looking for permits for the entire project, (DOT engineers) are piecemealing it and asking for permits for one section at a time,” said Julie Youngman, an attorney in the law center’s Chapel Hill office. “They’re ignoring the environmental impacts of the entire project. The current plan is not going to provide reliable, safe access all the way across Oregon Inlet and down to Rodanthe.”
The conservation groups favor an alternate solution, replacing Bonner Bridge with a 17-mile-long bridge that would veer out into Pamlico Sound, bypassing the Pea Island refuge. DOT says that would be too expensive.
The inlet bridge contract was awarded in 2011. DOT can’t start work until it receives several state and federal permits, and until a federal judge rules on claims by the conservation groups that the project violates federal environmental laws.
Youngman filed a petition Thursday with the N.C. Office of Administrative Hearings for a hearing before a state administrative law judge on the Coastal Area Management Act permit. Youngman and DOT officials said they could not predict how long it will take to settle the case.
Jim Trogdon, DOT chief deputy secretary, said he hoped soon to have a federal court ruling that could clear the way for construction on the new Oregon Inlet bridge. He said he hoped the state court hearings would not cause much additional delay.
“Most of the arguments in their request for a hearing are the same arguments in the federal case, so we believe they will be addressed through the federal court decision,” Trogdon said.
The state spends more than $2 million a year on repairs needed to keep the old bridge safe. A $1.4 million contract was awarded last month to shore up bridge supports that have been undermined by erosion.
Meanwhile, pending a favorable federal court ruling, DOT plans in September to open bids for a 2.4-mile bridge that would elevate a vulnerable section of N.C. 12 in the Pea Island refuge, expected to cost $98 million. Bid opening for another long bridge at Rodanthe, pegged at $119 million, is scheduled for April.
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