Someone Is Watching

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Brown water pours out of the silt bag. The pipe leading from the pump is attached to the bag at the upper right-hand corner.

Wetlands can be a real pain in the butt if you’re a developer trying to build something in them. They must be ditched and pumped dry and topped with tons of dirt. Despite your best efforts they get soggy again come the first good rain.

The developers of the Dollar Tree and Verizon stores on N.C. 24 here in Swansboro are finding out just how stubborn wetlands can be. They chose a site that is about half wetland. They’ve been pumping them for weeks, dumping the water in a storm ditch along Main Street Extension. When they started clearing the site and disturbing the soil a few weeks ago, the discharge turned the color of chocolate milk, which seemed to violate the state’s turbidity standards. Those rules prohibit visible off-site sediment from any land-disturbing activity.

That water ran through the ditch, went under the road, through the Ace Hardware property, then under N.C. 24 and eventually into Halls Creek. The creek is designated by the state as a shellfish-growing water body. It’s already considered polluted by stormwater runoff.

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A sample of the water pouring out of the bag is dark brown Monday.

Sedimentation is one of the leading causes of water pollution. It leads to fish kills, clogged streams, reduced storage volume of reservoirs and added filtration costs for our municipal water supplies. The smaller soil particles remain suspended in the water. These suspended particles block out light filtering through the water, reducing photosynthesis and altering the ecology of our streams.

I took some pictures and a couple of samples of the water coming out of the discharge pipe and sent them to Holley Snider, an inspector with the N.C.  Division of Energy, Minerals and Land Resources. The division enforces the sediment standards. Snider told me that the pictures seemed to indicate a problem. She spoke with the developer, Chris Bailey of Jacksonville, and visited the site on a day when no pumping was going on. She suggested that Bailey place a big nylon bag at the end of the pipe to filter sediment out of the discharge.

Bailey complied. But I had my doubts. These silt bags don’t do a very good job at capturing the finer sediments. After a heavy downpour early yesterday morning, my fears were confirmed. Black water poured from the bloated sediment bag and down the ditch along Main Street extension.

This time I brought a turbidity tube with me. Turbidity is a measure of the cloudiness of water. The higher the turbidity, the harder it is to see through the water. Turbidity measurements are reported in nephelometric turbidity units (NTU) or Jackson turbidity units (JTU). Different units are used depending on which method is chosen to measure turbidity. The two units are roughly equivalent and can be used interchangeably for field purposes.

With the naked eye, an average person can begin to see turbidity levels starting at around 5 NTU and greater. Lakes that are considered relatively clear in the United States can have a turbidity up to 25 NTU. If water appears muddy, its turbidity has reached at least 100 NTU. At 2,000 NTU, water is completely opaque. Water bodies in North Carolina with NTU of more than 50 are in violation of water quality standards.

Keep those numbers in mind.

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The discharge from the construction site, right, contrasts with the clearer runoff flowing down an unaffected side ditch.

The clear plastic tube is about two inches in diameter and about four feet tall. At the bottom is a black and white disk. You pour your sample into the tube until you can no longer see the disk from the top of the tube. A scale on the side gives you the NTU measurement.

I poured less than a half inch of the water coming out of the silt bag into the tube and the disk disappeared. That corresponded to NTU greater than 250, the limit of the tube’s measurements.

I also measured the runoff in a side ditch not affected by the discharge. It had a NTU of 30. Where the two streams met, the difference was stark.

I took more pictures and sent them to Snider. I suggested that pumping the wetlands be stopped until a way is found to keep mud out of our creeks. She sent my photos on to Bailey and to Gary Pope of Johnson Grading who is doing the site work along with this email:

“Gary, per our phone conversation, please provide me with an update of the conditions of the site in response to this email, a copy of the required report from last night’s rainfall event and any additional measures being taken to reduce/limit turbid water from leaving the site.  It may be necessary to cease and desist pumping water, including water thru the silt bag, if the water that is leaving the site would result in a violation of the State’s water quality standards.”

The pumping stopped Monday afternoon.

We in Swansboro passed a tough watershed plan last year that commits the town to reducing the flow of polluted stormwater runoff into our surrounding waters. We instituted an annual stormwater utility fee a couple of years ago. Every property owner in town now contributes to help fund ways to reduce flooding and the flow of water pollution.

Everyone must do their part, including those who choose to build in our town. They should know that someone is watching.

Sunday Sermon: Live with Creation

I was walking Sawyer, our daughter’s sweet spaniel mix, on this blustery, cold Sunday morning. As is our wont, we ended up at our community boat ramp where we both like to sit awhile at the end of the dock to watch the river’s life go by. We’re usually rewarded with jumping mullet, diving terns and, at certain times of the year, the occasional pod of porpoises breaking the surface with the gentle whoosh of expelling air.

This morning, though, an adjoining property owner was busily and noisily at work in the marsh behind his house, hacking away at the grasses with his weed eater, cutting them down to the ground to conform with his manicured lawn.

Feeling charitable on this day of rest, I told Sawyer, there, my boy, is a man who truly knows not what he does.

salt marshBack during my time with N.C. Coastal Federation, I would field calls this time of year from waterfront property owners who wanted to know if they could cut down the marsh grasses bordering the water. My first question was always the same: Why? I’ve yet to hear a reasonable answer.

A variety of plants fringe the borders of our saltwater estuaries: Cordgrasses, black needle rush, sea lavender, spike grass. There, where the tide ebbs and flows each day, hundreds of kinds of invertebrates crawl through the muck. Fiddler crabs, hermit crabs, stone crabs and blue crabs join snails, mussels and worms looking for food and shelter. Fish and shrimp are there as well in search of food and a place to lay their eggs.

Egrets and herons stalk the high grasses to spear a meal. Willets nest in there, and a variety of songbirds flit through cordgrass and needlerush, filling the marsh with their melodious symphony.

Because of their importance to the health of our estuaries, these saltwater marsh grasses are protected by state law. Unfortunately, there’s nothing to prevent a guy from going out there on a Sunday morning on foot with a weed wacker or scythe to mow them down. Had he been using a lawn mower or tractor, he would have gotten a visit tomorrow from an enforcement official. Cutting ruts through the marsh is illegal.

I used to tell the people who called me that even if they don’t care about the birds and the fish and such, they should be worried about their waterfront homes. Numerous studies have confirmed the effectiveness of a healthy saltmarsh in preventing flood damage. In the largest laboratory experiment ever constructed to investigate this phenomenon, researchers at Cambridge University have shown that over 120 feet, the salt marsh reduced the height of large waves in deep water by 18 percent, making them an effective tool for reducing the risk of coastal erosion and flooding. The marsh plants alone accounted for 60 percent of that reduction, the study found.

Those people who called usually said they wanted to cut down the marsh grasses so that they could see water better, as if something that rarely grows taller than three feet obscures the view.

My advice was also always the same: Consider yourself fortunate to be able to live by the sea. You have a front-row seat to the majestic beauties of creation. Learn to appreciate  it, instead of wrestling with it unendingly to make it conform to your world. The birds will thank you and so will the fish. You’ll look like a genius when the next hurricane comes roaring by. I intend to tell my neighbor the same thing the next time I see him.

The Fix Is In

RALEIGH – It was more like an oil-industry conference. And a cheesy one at that.

The “listening session” that the U.S. Interior Department sponsored a couple of weeks ago on President Trump’s proposal to open virtually the entire U.S. coastline to oil and natural gas drilling featured placards that informed us what oil is and why it’s important to the country. No warnings about spills, no pictures of burning rigs or oil-coated cormorants. A handful of smiling government experts politely answered questions and directed people to laptops if they wanted to submit comments. A sign warned that all such comments should be based on facts, not emotions.

It all was terribly boring, not very informative and ultimately not worth the drive. I got the impression that’s the way they wanted it.

I drove away from the North Raleigh Hilton on that cold, wet afternoon with one, dreary conclusion: The fix is in.

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Hundreds of opponents packed a rally in Raleigh to oppose offshore drilling. Photo: N.C. Policy Watch

Understand that we shouldn’t even be talking about this right now. The federal government two years ago approved a five-year, offshore leasing plan that ends in 2022. Widespread opposition along the East Coast forced Interior, which manages drilling leases three or more miles from shore, to exclude the Atlantic Ocean in its approved plan.

But Trump signed an unprecedented executive order in April to reopen that plan to allow leasing “to the maximum extent permitted by law.” That means just about everywhere, including off the N.C. coast.

The first step in the process outlined in federal law is to accept public comments on the environmental review that the law also requires. Thus, the “listening sessions.”

I had gone to Raleigh as Swansboro’s mayor pro temp to submit into the official federal record the resolution the town passed last year opposing offshore drilling. But no one there could take it. They pointed me to the computers. One smiling, young Interior official informed me that I would have to travel to Washington if I wanted to hand deliver it.

In the past, I would have joined hundreds of people in a packed meeting room. We would have all been given an opportunity to step to a microphone and say our piece before a federal hearing officer and, yes, hand over anything we wanted. All our documents and comments would have become part of the official record.  Back then, the meetings were called hearings and they would last hours. They could be loud and, yes, sometimes, rude. Like democracy, they could be messy.

Clearly, that’s not what the Interior Department wanted when it scheduled these listening sessions in 23 capital cities in coastal states across the country. As in those other places, hundreds of drilling opponents showed up in Raleigh, but the session’s format discouraged any official outbursts of boisterousness. So, as in those other places, opponents repaired to the opposite end of the hotel to hold a loud, rousing rally decorated by signs and banners and punctuated by invective. But all out of range of Interior officials.

The department avoided holding these sessions in coastal locations where residents are most at risk and where emotions are the highest. That’s also by design. When it last collected comments on the environmental assessment two years ago, Interior held four meetings in North Carolina, including three here on the coast. While they were similar in format to these “listening sessions,” those meetings were less scripted, manned by more officials and included information on environmental and social risks and alternative energies.

But why replicate that effort and spend the money if the decision has already been made? Unlike the last time, it’s hard to believe that what’s going on now is a honest attempt to gauge public sentiment or to assess risks. Forgive me for refusing to believe that this president, who has eliminated protection for public lands, turned the Environmental Protection Agency into a shill for industry and cut regulations, cares about sea turtles, fishing grounds, migrating whales or oil-covered beaches. Forgive me for failing to trust that this Interior secretary who has proposed opening public lands to drilling and mining and who, along with deputies, has met 180 times with oil-industry executives will protecti our natural resources?

To reach any other conclusion that this environmental assessment will determine that drilling is good for us is laughable. So is thinking that what they’re doing now is anything more than merely going through the motions of meeting legal requirements.

While I expect Interior to race through the study, don’t expect to see rigs appear off our coast any time soon. The many irregularities in Interior’s process guarantees legal challenges. And no oilman who must answer to shareholders will attempt to drill in a virgin territory like the Atlantic with oil selling below $50 a barrel and when a glut of natural gas has those prices at historic lows.