Groups Challenge State’s Water Permit for Controversial Monroe Bypass as Bogus
A permit issued by the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources for the proposed Monroe Bypass east of Charlotte fails to fully assess the water quality impacts from building a 20-mile highway through the Yadkin River watershed, and is another example of highway proponents attempting to bulldoze environmental safeguards to build the $800 million project, two environmental groups say. They filed papers with the N.C. Office of Administrative Hearings yesterday challenging the “401” permit issued by DENR earlier this year.
Under section 401 of the Clean Water Act, the agency is required to evaluate the full scope of the project to ensure that stream and wetland impacts are avoided or otherwise minimized, and that storm water is controlled to prevent off-site water pollution. The permit issued by DENR, however, does not authorize construction and serves no legitimate purpose under the 401 program. Because the whole project has not yet been designed, and the water quality impacts have been fully assessed for only one-sixth of the route, there is no way to ensure that aquatic impacts are minimized as the 401 program is designed to do before a permit is issued. DENR plans to consider the actual impacts of the full project later, through “permit modifications,” meanwhile allowing the project to move forward with other approvals and locking in financing arrangements.
“They have essentially issued a permit that lets the Turnpike Authority issue bonds to pay for the bypass, without first having fully looked at the impacts to water quality, as required by law,” said Chandra Taylor, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center which is representing the North Carolina Wildlife Federation and Yadkin Riverkeeper in the challenge.
“In its headlong rush to build this highway, the Turnpike Authority appears unconcerned that it would saddle taxpayers with decades of debt and siphon money away from desperately needed road and bridge maintenance throughout the state.” The 401 permit would ostensibly allow the first project-specific bonds to be sold that could not be transferred to another project.
The groups filed suit in federal court against the authority in November under the National Environmental Policy Act and sought a preliminary injunction against the project; that suit is ongoing, with a hearing expected sometime this summer. In addition to the piecemeal permitting issues raised in the 401 challenge, many of the flaws in the environmental study regarding the failure to study project impacts and alternatives being challenged in that suit were also incorporated into the 401 permitting process.
“Unfortunately, the piecemeal approach taken by DOT won't have a piecemeal impact on the environment,” said Tim Gestwicki, executive director of the North Carolina Wildlife Federation. “Instead, a 20-mile-long toll road through the Yadkin River watershed will result in the wholesale destruction of wildlife habitat and a wholly unacceptable increase in sprawl and sprawl-related pollution. There are better solutions to US 74 traffic than building another traffic-choked highway.
“How can a potentially highly destructive project get green lighted based on one-sixth of its total impact? It's doubtful a bank would okay a loan to a new business owner based on one-sixth of a business plan. It's simply not in the best interest of the bank. Nor would it be, in the case of this water permit, be in the best interests of DENR or the public.”