The state Department of Transportation announced this afternoon that it had reached an agreement with environmental groups allowing the agency to replace the aging Herbert C. Bonner Bridge over the Oregon Inlet on the Outer Banks with a new parallel bridge. Under the agreement, NCDOT will also consider options that would move vulnerable portions of N.C. Highway 12 out of the southern half of Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge and into Pamlico Sound.

“We appreciate the efforts of all parties to agree on a viable solution that best serves the people and interests of North Carolina,” NCDOT Secretary Tony Tata said in a statement. “The settlement agreement will allow NCDOT to provide a safe and reliable bridge for thousands of residents who rely on this lifeline to get to work, school, and healthcare and for millions of visitors who travel to the Outer Banks every year.”

“We are pleased that NCDOT and its partner agencies will consider additional options for N.C. 12 that will provide safe, reliable transportation by avoiding the areas where erosion and washouts shut down the road in its current location.  This is a win-win for the Refuge and everyone who relies on N.C. 12,” Julie Youngman, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center who represented the conservation groups added.

Here’s more from the DOT:

Under the settlement agreement, after certain tasks are complete including ceasing work on a 2.4-mile bridge within the Refuge, the conservation groups will dismiss both federal and State Bonner Bridge-related lawsuits.  NCDOT will move forward with construction of a new bridge parallel to the existing Bonner Bridge and will study options for Pamlico Sound structures to address the Mirlo Beach area and the Pea Island inlet created by Hurricane Irene.  NCDOT will complete this entire process collaboratively with the Merger Team, composed of state and federal resource and regulatory agencies. During the study period, NCDOT will implement interim measures on Pea Island to provide safe and reliable transportation through this area. In September 2014, NCDOT suspended construction on a permanent Pea Island Bridge as part of the settlement process.

The groups and the DOT had long been battling in court over the fate of the bridge.  Most recently the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond sent the lawsuit back to the district court for further review, finding that that lower court had failed to consider requirements relating to the protection of wildlife refuge land — here, the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge on Hatteras Island, through which the battered NC-12 runs – when determining if the project complied federal law.

Read the full settlement agreement here.


Bonner-BridgeThe dispute over the Bonner Bridge project is heading back to the district court, after a unanimous panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held today that the lower court had failed to consider certain requirements relating to the protection of wildlife refuge land — here, the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge on Hatteras Island, through which the battered NC- 12 runs.

The state had agreed in 2003 to build the the Pamlico Sound Alternative – a 17-mile causeway bridge that would bypass NC-12 in the troubled areas, spanning instead from Bodie Island, out into the Pamlico Sound and connecting back at Rodanthe. Construction was set to begin in 2006, with the new bridge opening in 2010.

But the NCDOT shifted course in 2009 and agreed to build a parallel bridge instead, leaving improvements to NC-12 in the troubled areas to then undefined “later phases.”

The Department has since proposed the construction of two additional bridges in the shifting sands of the Refuge to overcome storm wash-out on NC-12.

In the ruling, written by U.S. Circuit Judge  James A. Wynn Jr., the judges did find though that the state had complied with provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act when evaluating multiple proposals that included the building of the single replacement bridge and the planning of future bridges along NC -12.

A full analysis of the decision will follow.

Read more about the case here.



It may be mid-summer, and the Outer Banks may evoke memories of beaches, lighthouses, and wild horses, but UNC journalist and educator Sara Peach reminds us in this must-read National Geographic multimedia essay (photos, videos and maps) that memories could be all that remain in a few short years.

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Among the scientists Peach interviewed is East Carolina coastal geologist Stanley Riggs, who contributed to a controversial report warning that “North Carolina could face 39 inches (1 meter) of sea-level rise by 2100, as glaciers melt and ocean waters warm and expand.”

As she describes, that report got a chilly reception from state lawmakers:

The report prompted a backlash from coastal developers and climate skeptics—and in 2012, from the state. Lawmakers in Raleigh considered a bill that would have prohibited state agencies from planning for accelerated sea-level rise.

Environmentalists were outraged, bloggers snickered, and even comedian Stephen Colbert weighed in: “If your science gives you a result you don’t like, pass a law saying the result is illegal,” he joked. “Problem solved.”

Eventually, the state settled on a watered-down version of the law: a four-year moratorium on sea-level regulations, and an order for a new scientific study of sea-level rise, due out in 2015. In May, a state commission asked the science panel to limit its next sea-level forecast to 30 years.

The irony of the whole argument, Riggs says, is that the coast as we know it is already vanishing. “Sea-level rise and storms are taking out eastern North Carolina today—not a hundred years from now. They’re doing it today,” he says.

For more on the problems with erosion on the Outer Banks and the related access issues, read here.




This morning a panel of three judges on the 4th U.S. Court of AppealsPaul V. Niemeyer (presiding at the argument), Roger L. Gregory and Henry F. Floyd — will hear arguments in the same-sex marriage case out of Virginia, Bostic v. Schaefer.  In February 2014, U.S. District Judge Arenda L. Wright Allen ruled that the state’s 2006 ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional.

Niemeyer got his start on the federal bench as a U.S. District Judge in 1988, after his appointment by President Ronald Reagan, and ascended to the Fourth Circuit in 1990 via President George H.W. Bush.  Gregory, the first African American to sit on the Fourth Circuit, was originally a Clinton recess appointee who was then reappointed by President George W. Bush. Floyd was initially appointed the U.S. District Court in South Carolina by President George W. Bush in 2003 and then to the Fourth Circuit by President Barack Obama in 2011.

A recording of the argument will be available after 2 p.m. at this link.

At the same time, a different panel will hear argument in the case concerning the fate of the Bonner Bridge on the Outer Banks, Defenders of  Wildlife v. N.C. Dep’t of Transportation.  In September 2013, U.S. District Judge Louise Flanagan ruled that North Carolina could move forward with a newly-conceived plan which Defenders of Wildlife and other environmental groups say is short-sighted and environmentally unsound.

The judges hearing the Bonner Bridge appeal are Allyson K. Duncan, James A. Wynn Jr. and J. Michelle Childs (sitting by designation from South Carolina). Duncan, a Durham, N.C. native, was appointed to the Fourth Circuit by President George W. Bush in 2003 to the seat vacated by Samuel J. Ervin III, and is the first African American woman to sit on the court.  Wynn, also a North Carolina native, served on the state Court of Appeals and Supreme Court before his appointment to the Fourth Circuit by President Barack Obama in 2010, the same year the President also appointed Childs to the court.

On an unrelated note, late last week the President nominated Pamela Harris to serve on the Fourth Circuit, filling the Maryland slot left open when U.S. Circuit Judge Andre Davis took senior status at the end of February.

Read more about Harris here.


Bonner-BridgeICYMI, be sure to check out the op-ed in this morning’s edition of Raleigh’s News & Observer by Derb Carter, the Director of the North Carolina office of Southern Environmental Law Center. In it, Carter explains yet again why the longer Bonner Bridge replacement championed by his organization is by far the more responsible option — both in terms of protecting the environment and protecting taxpayers.

As Carter notes, it’s a classic “pay me now or pay me later” scenario: pay upfront for a stable  and lasting bridge that will be sheltered from storms and avoid the fast-eroding part of Hatteras Island or rely on a constantly changing set of patchwork “solutions” that are based upon repeatedly repairing roads and reclaiming land swallowed by the sea.

Isn’t it interesting that yet again, the sober, hard-headed, fiscally responsible solution is being advanced by so-called “liberals” whilst the dreamy-eyed, hope-for-the-best-and-improvise plan is being put forth by so-called “conservatives”?

You can read Carter’s essay by clicking here.