Political leaders from Raleigh to Manteo say the closing of a key Outer Banks bridge is a “man-made disaster,” and they’re heaping blame on an environmental law firm that has stymied the state’s effort to replace the 50-year-old bridge.
Gov. Pat McCrory urged coastal residents to put pressure on the Southern Environmental Law Center to drop its appeal of a federal court ruling in September that dismissed its lawsuit to stop the new bridge.
“The new bridge should have already been under construction, but the Southern Environmental (Law) Center is doing everything they can to block our efforts,” McCrory said Tuesday evening in a Nags Head radio station interview. “They’re putting people in jeopardy. And they’re putting jobs in jeopardy.”
Transportation Secretary Tony Tata flew to Dare County on Wednesday to explain his decision to shut down the N.C. 12 Bonner Bridge over Oregon Inlet because of rapid erosion that has undermined bridge supports – and to lambaste the Southern Environmental Law Center.
“These ivory tower elitists file these lawsuits from their air-conditioned offices in Chapel Hill,” Tata said. “And they do so with their lattes and their contempt, and chuckle while the good people of the Outer Banks are fighting hard to scratch out a living here based on tourism and based on access.”
Tata said it was too early to say how long it will take to repair the bridge and reopen it to traffic.
DOT started emergency ferry service to Hatteras Island from the Dare County mainland Tuesday evening. The ferry from Stumpy Point makes 10 daily round trips, with enough capacity to carry 760 cars and trucks each day. Ferry schedules and details are online at ncdot.gov/ferry.
DOT awarded a contract in 2011 for a new 2.8-mile-long replacement for Bonner Bridge, but the work cannot begin while the environmental challenges are still active in state and federal courts.
Representing two environmental organizations as plaintiffs, the Southern Environmental Law Center contends that the state should implement an old proposal for a 17-mile-long bridge that would carry N.C. 12 over Oregon Inlet, across Pamlico Sound and around the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge to Hatteras Island. Judge Louise Flanagan of the U.S. Eastern District Court rejected the group’s arguments in September.
Julie Youngman, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, noted Wednesday that previous DOT leaders favored the long bridge as recently as 10 years ago.
“The current situation would have been avoided if Dare County officials had not stopped construction of the bridge across Pamlico Sound that NCDOT and all the other agencies supported back in 2003,” Youngman said by email from the law group’s North Carolina office in Chapel Hill. “We understand that a longer bridge has a higher upfront cost, and we have repeatedly offered to work with NCDOT to find a way to truly invest in a long-term solution to meet the transportation needs of the Outer Banks for generations to come.”
N.C. 12 frequently is closed because of flooding and storm damage, and DOT has spent millions of dollars in recent years on bridge repairs after the Oregon Inlet currents scoured away too much of the sand around the pilings that support the bridge. But this was the first time since the bridge was built in 1963 that DOT had to close it because rapid scouring had made it unsafe.
“We’re not dealing with a natural disaster,” Warren Judge, the Dare County commissioners chairman, said Wednesday after Tata spoke in Manteo. “We’re here today because of a man-made disaster. … We need the people to stand with us and tell these special-interest groups that have stalled, delayed and obstructed the replacement of this bridge that they need to stop.”
The Southern Environmental Law Center and other environmental groups in the Bonner case are scorned along the Outer Banks as frequently as the National Park Service, whose rangers catch heat for curbing public access to the beaches.
Tata and Judge were joined in the attack by a Democratic House member, a Republican senator and a state Board of Transportation member Wednesday, all of them calling on the group to drop its lawsuit. After McCrory blasted the environmental plaintiffs as “pretty left-wing” Tuesday night on the Beach 104 radio station, his interviewer offered a vigorous approval.
“Governor, I think you echoed the sentiments of most everybody here in northeastern North Carolina when you say that,” said radio DJ Christian Benedi. “We want to get the ball rolling and start making progress toward an alternative to the bridge.”
Youngman said bridge construction could not begin immediately, even if the lawsuit is dropped, because DOT has not yet secured the environmental permits it needs.
DOT officials said late last week that they would order repairs to correct the bridge erosion, but many Outer Banks residents were caught by surprise when Tata announced Tuesday afternoon that the bridge must be closed immediately.
He said additional sonar scans and inspections by divers on Monday and Tuesday revealed that the erosion had accelerated since last week.
In a cluster of 10 pilings attached to one of many piers that hold up the bridge, all but one were shown to have critical scouring, with less than 20 feet of the piling still buried in sand. One of the 10 was buried only 13 feet deep, Tata said.