As noted in this space last week, conservative state officials have been acting more like loud-mouthed radio squawkers than public leaders in recent days when it comes to the controversy over the decaying Bonner Bridge on the Outer Banks.
This morning’s N.C. League of Conservation Voters newsletter has a response worth reading:
“What do you do when you’re stalled in the courts on a major transportation project? If you’re Governor Pat McCrory, you launch a personal attack against the citizen conservation group that’s challenging you.
It’s a ploy straight out of the old anti-environmental playbook. When poor planning by a government agency or greed by a polluter leaves a community in a fix, then blame the environmentalists who’ve been telling you about the problem (and how to fix it) for years. Tell the community facing the problem that it’s the nasty environmentalists (not you!) who have put them there–and try to win by intimidation what you can’t achieve by law.
In this case, the debate is over the replacement of the aging Bonner Bridge over Oregon Inlet to Hatteras Island on the Outer Banks. A battle in the press and now the courts has raged for years over whether to replace the bridge with another in essentially the same place, or to install a much longer bridge in the sound. The longer bridge would bypass the areas most immediately threatened by the shifting inlet sands and by repeated storm washouts of Highway 12 along narrow northern Hatteras Island. Of special environmental significance, it would also bypass the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge at the northern end of the island.
State and local officials and some tourism interests have fought that alternative because it would cost much more to build, and because it would make the northern-most beach areas less easily accessed by off-road vehicles. Two years ago, the state Dept. of Transportation approved a contract to rebuild the shorter bridge. Two citizen conservation groups, represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), filed a challenge in federal court, asserting that the state’s course of action unnecessarily threatened the wildlife refuge and ignored the more logical longer option. So far, just another legitimate public policy debate.
Last week, however, the McCrory Administration seized news of the temporary emergency closure of Bonner Bridge due to structural issues and erosion around the base of some supports to launch a public attack. State Transportation Secretary Tony Tata pointed blame toward the SELC: ‘These ivory tower elitists file these lawsuits from their air-conditioned offices in Chapel Hill. 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.’ More here.
McCrory himself piled in a press conference Friday, in which he blamed SELC for delays in replacing the bridge, called them “irresponsible”, and said he would send letters to SELC’s directors asking them to drop their legal challenge. A prepared statement by NC legislative leaders Sen. Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) and Rep. Thom Tillis (R-Mecklenburg) howled that SELC’s “frivolous lawsuit is only the latest episode in their scheme to agitate the left and raise funds for an extreme, fringe agenda–this time, at the expense of Northeastern North Carolina’s economy.” In a Nags Head radio station interview, McCrory went further over the top: “They’re [SELC] putting people in jeopardy. They’re putting jobs in jeopardy.” More here.
That odor wafting off this display of public fulmination is the scent of political opportunism: Take a genuine hardship like another temporary bridge closure of the only road route onto an island, and use it in a flagrant effort to create a ‘boogeyman’ in advance of the 2014 election cycle. SELC fired back Friday, calling the comments by McCrory and crew ‘irresponsible personal attacks’ and pointing to political leaders’ decision to pursue a flawed solution as the root of the problem. More here.
Sources within SELC report that its North Carolina and Virginia offices have received ‘abusive and threatening’ calls following the attacks, but note that the organization and its clients have no intent of backing down. At this point, it appears that the episode is scrolling out as the latest attack by the current state administration and legislative leadership on environmental protection and those who advocate for it.”