Conservation groups denounce move by mining company to skirt wetlands protection laws
Nine of the state's most powerful conservation groups today condemned an attempt by PCS Phosphate Company, Inc. to get around environmental laws affecting its plans to extract phosphate ore in a mining operation that would destroy more than 4,000 acres of wetlands and five miles of streams in Beaufort County. The company this week asked the public to request that U.S. Senators Elizabeth Dole and Richard Burr and U.S. Representatives G.K. Butterfield and Walter Jones urge federal regulators to allow the company to proceed with its plans, notwithstanding the objections of several federal and state agencies.
“PCS is trying to achieve through the political process what it cannot achieve through the environmental review and permitting process,” said Derb Carter of the Southern Environmental Law Center. “The public will lose faith in our environmental protections if they are ignored by political fiat.”
PCS is seeking a permit required under the Clean Water Act from the Corps of Engineers for the project. The requested permit would allow PCS to destroy wetlands recognized as nationally significant for their rarity and quality, as well as wetlands the state has identified as important nurseries for commercial fish species.
Following the release of the Final Environmental Impact Statement on the project in May, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that approval of the project “will result in substantial and unacceptable adverse impacts to aquatic resources of national importance.” The Environmental Protection Agency determined that an alternative plan for mining was economical and would impact fewer wetlands; by law, the Corps can only permit the least environmentally damaging practicable alternative. The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, Division of Marine Fisheries, and Division of Water Quality have all opposed the company's current plan.
“PCS's proposed mining plan would have long-term, adverse environmental impacts on the Pamlico River; we believe the concerns about these impacts that have been expressed by these expert agencies should be addressed by the company, not overridden by political pressure,” said Heather Jacobs of the Pamlico-Tar River Foundation.
PCS first applied for a permit in 2000 to continue its phosphate mining operation in Beaufort County. From the start, state agencies warned that the company's plans violated state law, but PCS ignored those warnings and stood by its initial proposal for seven and a half years. In April, PCS changed its plans, and modified its permit application, in an attempt to comply with the law – although just last December the company claimed that those changes were not economically feasible. In a call to action sent this week to the public through the Beaufort County Committee of 100, the company suggests that bureaucratic delay is responsible for the eight-year hold up. “PCS's complaints about delay in the permitting process ring hollow,” said Dave McNaught, a public policy analyst at Environmental Defense Fund and member of the Review Team that has been involved in PCS's permitting process since the original permit application. “PCS is responsible for any delays in permitting. In December 2007 the company claimed it could not afford to mine Alternative L; in April 2008, it requested a permit for Alternative L. Permitting cannot be expected to move quickly if the company does not provide accurate information regarding critical elements of the permitting process.”
PCS's efforts have provoked opposition from numerous environmental groups in the state. “This effort by PCS could set a dangerous precedent that powerful companies do not have to comply with the environmental laws that smaller landowners are bound by,” said Todd Miller of the North Carolina Coastal Federation.
“In a time when North Carolina is working hard to make government more transparent, PCS Phosphate wants to keep the status quo and good ole boy network intact. This is not the way we conduct business in North Carolina, and we hope the members of Congress will tell PCS Phosphate they must play by the rules,” said Dan Crawford from the Conservation Council of North Carolina.
“We are likely to be faced with a similar request for expansion and permits by Titan Cement for their proposed plant,” said Cape Fear Riverkeeper Doug Springer. “A political override of the regulatory process and outcome will likely result in the destruction of even more wetlands across the state. We should not be asking our legislators to weaken the position of our regulatory agencies, but instead should strengthen their positions and capabilities.”
Because of those lasting direct and indirect impacts, the Cape Fear River Watch, Inc., the Neuse River Foundation, the North Carolina Wildlife Federation, and the North Carolina Chapter of the Sierra Club also raised concerns about PCS's search for a political escape from environmental laws.