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Terminal Groin Opponents Say Figure Eight Process Should be Re-Started, Re-Opened to Public Input

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

The decision to issue a permit for a terminal groin at the northern end of Figure Eight Island will be closely watched by environmentalists and three other nearby island communities – who are each hoping for their own erosion-control device.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will make the final decision.  The outcome could result in the first terminal groin in the state in decades – after what will likely be a precedent-setting exercise. 

But it’s the decision-making process itself that’s already under fire by some terminal groin opponents.

Until just a few weeks ago, Mike Giles, an environmental advocate with the North Carolina Coastal Federation, had a very specific beef with the Draft Environmental Impact statement for Figure Eight’s erosion control project. 

“It’s the poorest EIS we have ever reviewed.  And it’s so biased toward the applicant’s preferred alternative we have asked the Corps to discard it.” 

That document is one step in the process as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers considers a terminal groin on the north end of Figure Eight Island.  Mickey Sugg is a Project Manager with the Corps’ Regulatory Division. 

“I had expected to get a lot of comments knowing the controversy that’s been around terminal groins and hardening the shoreline of North Carolina and the sensitivity that goes with that -- and certainly understand the sensitivity in that.” 

The comments on the DEIS, levied by the Coastal Federation and dozens of governmental agencies, individuals, and environmental organizations last year – amount to almost 350 pages of criticism and corrections.  Mike Giles of the Coastal Federation says there’s a compelling new reason, though, for the Corps to discard the Draft EIS.

“Now what the HOA has proposed we have found out – and this is not public knowledge yet – and it should be… They’re proposing to move this groin – change its alignment, change its length, change its impact – which is a major change to the process that’s delegated by the National Environmental Policy Act.”

And so the Army Corps of Engineers, says Giles, should start the whole process over. 

But Figure Eight is still fine-tuning its project proposal.  And until the HOA finishes its modeling and decides on the final design, the Corps’ Mickey Sugg says there’s not a good reason to require another Environmental Impact Statement. 

Mike Giles also says he wonders why the Figure Eight Homeowners’ Association is even moving forward considering his discovery during a recent trip to the Island. 

“If you go to Figure Eight and walk on the beach at high tide, they don’t need a terminal groin.  The beach has accreted.  The inlet channel is in its most favorable position and has created a really nice ebb shoal delta which feeds sand on the beach.   So at this point, none of the houses at Figure Eight are threatened by erosion or by high water.”

David Kellam runs the Figure Eight Island Homeowners’ Association. 

“We’re trying to be pro-active in our long-term management for maintaining the beaches of North Carolina.  We have not lost any houses at this point.  We don’t want to lose any houses at this point.  We want to maintain the beaches for everyone.”

Again, the Corps’ Mickey Sugg:    

“When they’re looking at long-term, they’re looking at structures and roads and infrastructure.  I think they’re estimating about thirty structures that could be threatened from the erosion problems.”

And although the Draft Environmental Impact Statement does provide key data for the Corps, it’s hardly the linchpin of the decision-making process, says Sugg. 

“We still haven’t produced what we call an Essential Fish Habitat assessment.  We haven’t still produced a biological assessment which looks at threatened and endangered species.” 

The goal, says Sugg, was to release the Draft EIS, then sort through the comments and incorporate them into the Essential Fish Habitat study and the Biological Assessment. 

“…and then submit that to the National Marine Fisheries and the Fish and Wildlife service.  So that’s why those documents haven’t been released at this time.” 

The Corps has also suggested the Figure Eight HOA undertake a comprehensive economic impact study. 

When opponents complain that public participation seemed to stop once terminal groins were legalized in the state, Sugg cites the clearly-defined, federally-mandated points at which the public is invited to comment.  The next opportunity comes up when the Final Environmental Impact Statement is produced. 

“Our whole program is built around the public interest.  So we’re not only looking at the interests of the homeowners or Figure Eight.  We have a list of 22 public interest factors.  When we’re looking at a permit application or making permit decision, we include those relevant public interest factors.”

Some of those factors:  recreation, navigation, threatened and endangered species, and economic impact.    

Rachel hosts and produces CoastLine, an award-winning hourlong conversation featuring artists, humanitarians, scholars, and innovators in North Carolina. The show airs Wednesdays at noon and Sundays at 2 pm on 91.3 FM WHQR Public Media. It's also available as a podcast; just search CoastLine WHQR. You can reach her at rachellh@whqr.org.