The N.C. Division of Coastal Management (DCM). This vastly understaffed agency has said not a public word about the bad beaches and bad sand mining practices. State rule 15A NCAC 07H.0308 says, “Sand to be used on the beach shall be compatible with the natural grain size and composition. Sand to be used for beach nourishment shall be taken only from those areas where the resulting environmental impacts will be minimal,” and gives DCM clear authority to prevent the placement of unacceptable material on state beaches. A DCM representative stated that without precise guidelines the agency will not act.
Perhaps the rule is not as clear as DCM would like. But common sense and responsible management of the state’s public trust natural coastal resources for future generations takes precedence over semantics, and the agency should have spoken out. At least they could have tried to stop the bad beaches. At least they could have said something out loud about the bad beaches. But DCM is an agency that has been beaten into submission. Gone are the days when the North Carolina Division of Coastal Management proudly led the nation in restricting seawalls and instituting rolling setback lines.
N.C. Division of Water Resources (DWR). This state agency oversees the Water Resources Development Grant Program and doles out state money for federal and non-federal beach nourishment/stabilization projects. Led by John Morris, a North Carolina Shore and Beach Preservation Association (NCSBPA) board member and ardent beach nourishment proponent who never met a beach engineering project he did not like, the agency has provided tens of millions of state tax dollars to stabilize our state’s beaches. DWR is the agency that spent $3.8 million on the Emerald Isle/Bogue Inlet project and $4 million on the project that placed rock along several miles of beach on Oak Island. The agency clearly never looks back to see what its funding has accomplished.
The N.C. Coastal Resources Commission (CRC). The state’s citizen-based, rule-making body could have insisted on high quality sand and made it stick, but took no decisive action as North Carolina’s beach degradation charged ahead.
Part of the commission’s problem is that it is overwhelmed, under-funded, meets only five times a year and spends an inordinate amount of time dealing with minor regulatory issues such as variances. More fundamental is a problem that plagues many N.C. commissions–the CRC is comprised of 50 percent bad guys and 50 percent good guys (you define which is which) so little is accomplished. In my view, the CRC is loaded with the very people who are responsible for the problems leading to poor beach management.
The N.C. Coastal Science Panel. The Coastal Science Panel’s job is to furnish scientific advice to DCM and the CRC, but the panel has not weighed in on the beach quality issue in a timely fashion. For over two years this group has discussed new beach sand compatibility guidelines, but to no avail. No rule has yet been put in place to protect state beaches. If history is any indication, DCM probably will not enforce new guidelines, anyway.
This group (I’m a member and therefore bear some responsibility for the group’s inaction) has other problems, including the fact that five of the 11 members are engineers. Nothing wrong with engineers, except they take a solution-oriented view rather than a purely scientific view of beach problems.
Another problem is that some panel members serve as private consultants for, and are paid by, the very same North Carolina coastal communities responsible for causing many of the problems the panel is charged with helping to solve. For example, Tom Jarrett, a retired U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Wilmington District coastal engineer, and William Cleary, a UNC-Wilmington coastal geologist, both worked on the Bogue Inlet mining project and consult for coastal clients such as Figure Eight Island and North Topsail Beach. Greg Williams, the current chief of coastal engineering in the Corps’ Wilmington District and a Science Panel member, is responsible for the disastrous Shallotte Inlet mining project.
The North Carolina State Legislature. In 1999, the N.C. General Assembly established a Legislative Research Commission on beach nourishment. Co-chaired by Dare County Planning Director Ray Sturza and state Rep. Nurham Warwick, the commission was supposed to address the complex and controversial issues associated with beach nourishment. If you think a governmental study commission would explore all sides of an issue on behalf of the people of North Carolina, think again. To the legislature’s everlasting shame, this group was packed with beach nourishment proponents and heard nary a negative word about nourishment.
The commission’s final recommendation was to establish an independent beach nourishment commission and fund that would further move the process out of the broad context of coastal zone management. In other words, it would take beach nourishment completely out of the hands of the Coastal Resources Commission–a bad move for the beach, but a favorable move for special interests intent on protecting coastal development at all costs. Fortunately, this idea has gone nowhere. But there always seems to be a member of the General Assembly susceptible to the temptations of the beach nourishment lobby, so the idea continues to pop up.
In 2003, a state legislative committee overrode one of the CRC’s few recent positive decisions to prohibit swimming pools in the setback zone between buildings and the shoreline. Too bad the legislature didn’t take a similar interest in the much more important issue of bad beaches.
Local Coastal Politicians. Local elected town councils and mayors could have stopped the bad beaches in Pine Knoll Shores, Emerald Isle, Ocean Isle and Oak Island with a collective snap of their fingers. But they remained silent, perhaps because to complain might have jeopardized their funding. No one bites the hand that feeds them.
At the local level, saving buildings and the tax base overrides concern for the quality of beaches for tourists, concern for the environment, and concern for the preservation of beaches for future generations. The fact that Emerald Isle knew ahead of time that the 2003 beach would be bad speaks volumes for the priorities of the community’s leaders.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Wilmington District of the Corps has approved and issued permits for every one of the bad beach projects. If Emerald Isle is an outlaw community, the Wilmington District certainly qualifies as an outlaw agency.
Col. James Delony, previous Wilmington District commander, visited Pine Knoll Shores in March 2002 and hailed the project as a “great job,” declaring, “What a great piece of work that’s been,” referring to the shell hash and gravel beach. It was a breathless bit of bureaucratic courage.
The Corps carried out the flawed mining of Shallotte Inlet in 2001 and intends to go back to the inlet for more sand to repair the damage caused by the original mining, which will cause more damage.
The Corps approved the flawed design of sand mining at Bogue Inlet, and the Corps itself put the muddy sand on Atlantic Beach and the rocky material on Oak Island. Both came from stockpiled dredged material that the Corps said was sampled ahead of time. If the Corps did sample these sites as they said they did, they sure did an incompetent job.
Imagine that the nation’s first beach nourished as a sea turtle habitat restoration project (Oak Island) is full of rocks! And the 2005 Atlantic Beach nourishment project that was supposed to be a wide beach extending into Pine Knoll Shores ended up much shorter and much narrower than projected. The sand was so fine and so full of mud that it quickly moved out to sea, and only a small portion of the expected beach volume was actually put in place. The engineering incompetence of the Wilmington District of the Corps of Engineers continues to be downright awe-inspiring. (It has not always been this way. In the ’60s and ’70s the district had a good reputation–at least by Corps standards.)
Over long years of interaction with the Wilmington District, I have learned that public comments on environmental impact and other documents are viewed as a procedural requirement and no more (a problem not unique to the Corps). Public comments by us–and others–always seem to be ignored or answered with a kind of “thanks, we’ll take that into account” attitude. The district had ample warning about all of its beach quality missteps in public comments, but ignored them all.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). The FWS offered the only bright spot in this sordid, sad picture, even if only for a short time. FWS has an official interest in beach quality because of its impact on threatened and endangered species such as piping plovers and sea turtles.
Tracy Rice, a coastal geologist fresh out of graduate school working for the FWS Raleigh office, read the consultant’s report and looked at samples from the sea floor and immediately understood that the proposed 2002 Pine Knoll Shores beach was going to be extraordinarily bad. Rice’s supervisor sent two letters to the Corps’ Wilmington District in June and October of 2001 informing them that the material was coarse shell gravel unsuitable for the beach. But the Corps chose to ignore the FWS’ concerns and issued a permit for the project anyway.
FWS sent a third letter to the Corps in September 2002 after the Pine Knoll Shores project was completed and the poor quality of the material was obvious, stressing that Emerald Isle should not be allowed to use the same bad sand. The Corps again ignored FWS warnings.
Copies of these letters were sent to the Division of Coastal Management and to all of the communities involved. There was no one who could say they didn’t know. No one had an excuse to remain silent.
As a reward for her alertness, a shower of letters complaining about Rice reached FWS offices in Atlanta and the Department of Interior in Washington. Complainers included local mayors, local politicians and beach nourishment proponents such as Harry Simmons, president of the North Carolina Shore and Beach Preservation Association (see below) and Howard Marlowe, the association’s Washington, D.C., lobbyist. According to documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by North Carolina Coastal Federation Coastkeeper Frank Tursi, the Wilmington District of the Corps was, to some extent, directing and coordinating this letter writing campaign.
The Corps and other beach nourishment proponents in North Carolina need not fear the Raleigh FWS office anymore. After the Emerald Isle project, Rice moved to Pennsylvania and North Carolina lost the only beach quality advocate in government. The Raleigh office of the USFWS is quiet as a mouse once again.
Consultants. Consultants have effectively taken over the management of our coast, and for all practical purposes beaches are now viewed as infrastructure to be engineered like highways, sewer systems and elevated water tanks. Coastal Science and Engineering (CSE) identified the source of the bad sand for Pine Knoll Shores and Emerald Isle while Coastal Planning and Engineering (CPE) designed the sand mining project at the tidal delta in Bogue inlet.
In its project design, CPE predicted that the tidal delta would completely reconstitute itself within four years (an impossibility). It required construction of a dike across the natural channel to stop tidal flow and encourage the accumulation of sand along the edge of the inlet in front of threatened houses on Emerald Isle that were about to fall in due to erosion.
After three months, the dike has almost completely disappeared and the design of the Bogue Inlet project by CPE clearly was poor. But it doesn’t matter, because the design was a good fig leaf for politicians to march onward with the inlet mining. And, as might be expected, Emerald Isle Town Manager Frank Rush is now defending the failed design, saying that the dike across the old channel wasn’t important anyway.
N.C. Shore and Beach Preservation Association (NCSBPA). You might think from its name that this group is very much concerned with beach quality. But it’s not. A more appropriate name would be “Beachfront Building Preservation Association” or “Shore and Beach Nourishment Association.” (Note: The group has recently changed its name to the North Carolina Beach, Inlet and Waterway Association.) Harry Simmons, mayor of Caswell Beach, is president of the national group and an effective lobbyist whose mission is to get everyone but the local community to pay for beach nourishment. The idea of retreating from the shoreline is unthinkable for this group. Simmons has a Karl Rove attack mentality and regularly trashes nourishment opponents, including myself.
Environmental groups. The N.C. Coastal Federation (NCCF) is the premier coastal environmental group in the state and should have been hollering from the mountaintop about the bad beaches. NCCF works behind the scenes and has a powerful lobbying effort in Raleigh. But it deals mostly with water quality and preservation of wetlands, and its approach is very much non-confrontational. It is distressing that NCCF chose not to fire all barrels when an environmental issue as great as the destruction of the beach occurred almost in the backyard of the group’s headquarters building.
NCCF Cape Lookout Coastkeeper Frank Tursi was very effective, however, in feeding facts about the beaches and the politics behind them to the media, which is why we consider him one of the few heroes of the Emerald Isle debacle. How to break the silence What can be done about an outlaw beach community like Emerald Isle and a government so non-responsive at every level that additional beach degradation is all but guaranteed?
One good step in the right direction would be to foster an understanding that we have a coastal development problem, not a coastal erosion problem, and that our beaches would do just fine if left alone. There is no erosion problem until we build something next to the beach.
Changes can happen, but not without your help.
Forget about the Wilmington District. The Corps is an arm of Congress, not of the people, and can only be reformed through our congressional delegation in Washington.
We believe that legislators from here in the Triangle and elsewhere in the Piedmont have the clout to save our beaches. Some, like state Rep. Pricey Harrison from Greensboro, are already very active in beach affairs. Maybe you should talk to your representative about beach sand quality, public access, rules enforcement and the lack of agency backbone.
And if you don’t like what they have done to your favorite beach, phone city hall and tell them. Then vote with your feet and move on to a community that cares about the beach.
Your great-great-grandchildren will be grateful for your foresight.