Southern Environmental Law Center questions environmental permit
Already in the midst of a lawsuit to shut down the Monroe Bypass, the Southern Environmental Law Center is now challenging the permits issued for the project by the state. The group filed a challenge with the N.C. Office of Administrative Hearings Monday, Feb. 21, arguing the permits issued by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources doesn’t take into account the impact such a highway would have on water quality and wildlife.
“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,” Southern Environmental Law Center senior attorney Chandra Taylor said.
The center is representing the North Carolina Wildlife Federation and Yadkin Riverkeeper in this latest challenge, the same two groups that signed on to the firm’s previous lawsuit.
The argument stems over Section 401 of the Clean Water Act, which requires NCDENR to evaluate the full scope of a project, to guarantee impacts to streams or wetlands are avoided. As in the lawsuit filed by the center, the group argues that only one-sixth of the route has been fully assessed by the state, meaning there would be no way to tell if water quality would be impacted along the route.
“How can a potentially highly destructive project get greenlighted based on one sixth of its total impact,” North Carolina Wildlife Federation executive director Tim Gestwicki asked. “It’s doubtful a bank would ok a loan to a new business owner based on one-sixth of a business plan.”
The challenge points to comments made on the permit by NCDENR officials, which state any further data would be examined through “permit modifications”, allowing the project to move toward construction.
The group’s earlier lawsuit, which argues repairing the existing roads in the region would solve the majority of traffic problems, is currently making its way through the court system. Judge James Dever III said in January there was no evidence planning and design work would create problems, stating he expects to hear the full case before the fall. In court documents, the Turnpike Authority stated they don’t plan to break ground on the Bypass until October.
Instead of building the 19.7 mile road, the center suggests simply using N.C. 218 to divert traffic away from the congestion of Hwy 74.
“A 20-mile long toll road through the Yadkin River watershed will result in the wholesale destruction of wildlife habitat and a wholly acceptable increase in sprawl and sprawl related pollution,” Gestwicki said. “There are better solutions to U.S. 74 traffic than building another traffic-choked highway.”
The Section 401 permit allows the Turnpike Authority to sell the first project-specific bonds, committing the first construction dollars to the project. No timeline has been given as to when the challenge would be heard. Planning and design work on the Bypass continues in the meantime.