An environmental group claims undue political influence was applied in a state decision on whether to approve a $180 million reservoir project in Cleveland County.
The state Department of Environment and Natural Resources took the unusual step in July of granting a waiver for construction of a proposed Cleveland County reservoir, a controversial project that has been discussed since at least 2000. The project still has to be approved by the Army Corps of Engineers before it can be built.
On Friday, the Southern Environmental Law Center appealed DENR’s waiver to the Office of Administrative Hearings. Earlier, the same group wrote a letter to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also objecting to DENR’s actions. The appeal was brought on behalf of American Rivers, an environmental advocacy group.
“In an unprecedented move following pressure, DENR abdicated its responsibility to uphold water quality protections for the people of North Carolina,” said D.J. Gerken, senior attorney for the environmental group. “DENR waived its review of an incomplete application for an unneeded reservoir with no public notice. The county’s own consultants for the project found that, even in the worst drought conditions, its water needs could be met with existing supplies and less harm to water quality.”
A spokesman for DENR said Friday that the agency just received a copy of the statement and could not comment.
But Tom Reeder, who signed the waiver, told The Charlotte Observer this month that the likelihood that the corps would deny approval drove the decision.
“The state of North Carolina looked at all of this and said there’s really no value added to us getting involved in this whole thing,” said Reeder, director of the N.C. Division of Water Resources. “Cleveland County would have had to spend more money that would not go to any good purpose.”
Cleveland County Water, a public utility, is pushing for a proposed John Cline Reservoir that would flood 24 miles of First Broad River, streams, wetlands and 1,200 acres of forest and agricultural wetland. Besides providing water, some real estate developers are looking at it for land sales.
The project has some politically well-connected backers. Clyde “Butch” Smith, the general manager of Cleveland County Water, was appointed by House Speaker Thom Tillis to the N.C. Environmental Management Commission. The commission oversees the state’s water quality permits and certifications. The legal counsel for Cleveland County Water is Rep. Tim Moore, a Republican from Kings Mountain and the chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee.
The environmental group cites an email from Smith to a legislative staffer in August 2012, saying that “we feel like this election in November is going Republican and if that’s the case we will get the 401 permit.”
The appeal notes there are several, cheaper alternatives, including a proposal by the town of Forest City, which has excess water capacity, to provide water for the area.
The environmental group says that Rep. Mike Hager appeared before the Forest City council in March 2012 and “threatened” it with legislation to prohibit nearby water districts from selling water to Cleveland County. Hager is chairman of the House Public Utilities Committee and Energy Committee and vice chairman of the House Environment Committee and is considered a serious candidate for House speaker in 2015.
Hager listed on his 2012 economic statement that he received income in excess of $5,000 from a real estate venture, John Cline Res, that the environmental group said “is poised to profit from lakefront real estate development if the reservoir is constructed.”
In an interview Friday, Hager said he supports the reservoir but added that the environmental group’s description of his appearance before the Forest City council was “a total mischaracterization of what went on.”
Hager said he had been approached by a state senator, then Sen. Wes Westmoreland, “who was actually thinking about running legislation like that.” He said the legislation was aimed at “trying to force the hand of the Corps of Engineers.’
Hager said he did some limited consulting for the development company a couple of years ago, and he believed he was paid $5,000 to $6,000. He said that is the kind of work he does.
“They asked me to do some research for them, which I did, on the amount of rainfall, on amount of river flow that either increased or decreased over the last three or four decades, which I did,” Hager said. “That was the extent of anything I had to do with those folks.”