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Wastewater From A Proposed Beaufort County Mine Could Impact Blounts Creek

Southern Environmental Law Center

A proposed limestone mine in Beaufort County wants to discharge millions of gallons of waste water into Blounts Creek.  Environmental groups are suing, saying the influx of water would drastically alter the ecosystem and push wildlife out of the area.  But North Carolina has signed off on the permit.  

What happens when a popular fishing destination is changed by industry?  Raleigh based aggregate and heavy building material supplier Martin Marietta Materials is proposing a 649-acre open pit limestone mine off Welbourn Road near Vanceboro.  The company wants to discharge up to 12 million gallons of wastewater a day into nearby Blounts Creek.  But environmentalists say the move would significantly alter the ecosystem.  Pamlico-Tar Riverkeeper with Sound Rivers Heather Deck.

“These waters will no longer exhibit the uses and the characteristics of a swamp water that the state is supposed to protect.”

On September 1st, 2013, a permit from the North Carolina Division of Water Quality was issued, giving Martin Marietta permission to dispose of wastewater from mining operations into an unnamed tributary of Blounts Creek.  Mining at the site has not yet started.  We reached out to Martin Marietta on several occasions for their comment.  However, no phone calls were returned.  

“As with any mine in the coastal plain in North Carolina, when they have to mine to depths of 100 feet, they’re into ground water.  And so in this case, this mine will have to pump the water out of the mine pit and discharge it into Blounts Creek is their plan, is their proposed plan and what they were permitted to do.”

The state issued permit allows for a maximum of 6 million gallons of wastewater to be discharged from two outfall sites in Blounts Creek. 

“To put this in perspective, the city of Greenville, Greenville Utilities Commission, which supplies water to Greenville, Hookerton, Greene County, many other customers outside just the city of Greenville.  They use on average approximately 12 to 15 million gallons a day for all of their customers.  So it’s a lot of water.”

If Martin Marietta decides to pump groundwater into the narrow creek, Deck says the slow moving, low oxygen system will be transformed into a stream more commonly associated with the Piedmont region.

“To also provide an image, this will be discharged into a part of the creek that you could jump across.”

In addition to changing the flow of Blounts Creek, the introduction of groundwater would alter its acidity.

“Blounts Creek is naturally a pH that’s acidic.  Which is typical in the coastal plains for streams that flow through coastal wetlands.  So it runs in the headwaters from four to four and a half.”

Deck says the groundwater that would be discharged has a pH level of six and a half to seven.  She says aquatic wildlife that’s adapted to live there now would get pushed out.

“So that will change this environment that we have in Blounts Creek from an acidic environment to a neutral environment.  For most would be, well what’s the problem there? Not everything can live in that type of environment but the species that have evolved to live there thrive in that system.”

Blounts Creek starts as a freshwater system and eventually mixes with saltwater from the Pamlico River.  The mixing of salinities makes the system a productive habitat for salt and freshwater fish species as well as an important nursery habitat.  Blounts Creek is known as a popular fishing spot, teeming with red drum, speckled trout and river herring.   

“We fish Blounts Creek a good portion of the year.  It’s one of the major tributaries of the Pamlico River.  It’s major wintering grounds for speckled trout and striped bass.”

Richard Andrews operates Tar-Pam Guide Service, a fishing charter in Beaufort County.  He believes discharging fresh water into a brackish system would have a negative affect on the creek.

“Speckled trout need a certain level of salinity to survive, and so having that fresh water input into the head of the creek is going to affect their wintering ground, which is in turn going to really affect especially the speckled trout fishing in the creek.”

Andrews is opposed wastewater being pumped into Blounts Creek, saying he wishes Martin Marietta would explore other options.

“It would be nice if they could find a way to divert that groundwater instead of dumping it into the creek.”

There are alternative ways to discharge wastewater with less impact to Blounts Creek.  Deck says Martin Marietta could pump groundwater into a stream that’s not as environmentally sensitive.  Since the groundwater in the mine would come from the Castle Hayne aquifer, it could be injected back into the ground or used as drinking water for nearby communities.  But that would require treatment which would be expensive.  So far, the only method on the table is discharging into Blounts Creek.  It may be the cheapest option for Martin Marietta but is it the best option for the environment?

On September 17th, The Southern Environmental Law Center, representing Sound Rivers and North Carolina Coastal Federation appeared before the Beaufort County Superior Court. At issue is whether the North Carolina Division of Water Resources legally issued the permit to Martin Marietta and whether administrative law judges were wrong in upholding the permit.   Senior Attorney Geoff Gisler says they asked the court to vacate the permit.  

“The court reversed the administrative law judges decision that the permit had been legally issued, we hoped he might had gone so far as to vacate the permit.  He sent the case back to the administrative court for a full trial on that issue on whether that permit was legally issued.”

The full hearing on the issuance of permit could begin in several months. Until then, Deck says Martin Marietta could begin discharging wastewater into Blounts Creek at any time.

“They actually have all of the permits they need to start.  They have air permits, mining permits, and their waste water discharge permit and a ground water permit.  So there’s nothing keeping them from starting.”

The North Carolina Division of Water Resources turned down our requests for interview, saying in an email “after advice from our legal counsel, we will have to decline to comment.”  We’ll continue to follow this story.  I’m Jared Brumbaugh. 

Jared Brumbaugh is the Assistant General Manager for Public Radio East. An Eastern North Carolina native, Jared began his professional public radio career at Public Radio East while he was a student at Craven Community College earning his degree in Electronics Engineering Technology. During his 15+ years at Public Radio East, he has served as an award-winning journalist, producer, and on-air host. When not at the station, Jared enjoys hiking, traveling, and honing his culinary skills.