Posts

N&O: Residents argue that removing Milburnie Dam would ruin scenery

Page A-1
Thu, Apr 22, 2010 05:36 AM
In Fight Over Dam Sides Ask: What’s Natural?

RALEIGH For more than a century, Milburnie Dam has stood 16 feet high in the middle of Raleigh, a stone wall that interrupts the Neuse River like an aquatic comma. Above it, motorboats troll through deep water; below, fishermen wade around a pounding waterfall.

Now a Raleigh firm that does environmental work wants to tear out the privately owned dam and let the Neuse flow freely, removing the only man-made obstacle between Falls Lake and Pamlico Sound. Doing so, they say, would bring shad and other fish further upriver and improve the water quality by speeding up a slowed-down Neuse.

In Fight Over Dam Sides Ask: What’s Natural?
Read more

Letter: Eco-Advocates ask EMC to take action on Double-Dip

Below is an email sent by several concerned environmental advocates to the NC EMC regarding recent policy decisions concerning Compensatory Mitigation Requirements..

Date: Wed, 13 Jan 2010 16:16:07 -0500
Subject: EMC Agenda Item 10-09, Compensatory Mitigation Requirements and EBX

Dear Environmental Management Commission Members,

Given the recent press, you are probably aware of the concerns raised by the environmental community related to the double-dipping of ecological values produced by Division of Water Quality (DWQ) crediting policies.[1]  The concept of “additionality,” as used by DWQ (the gain of additional benefit without additional work), is illusory and should not be applied to the environmental laws and policies we rely upon to protect our public trust waters.

The use of acreage that has already offset stream or wetland impacts to obtain riparian buffer or nutrient offsets re-credits the same nutrient removal function already allotted to existing credits, resulting in net degradation of water quality.  This double counting of credits results in a net loss of ecosystem function, which is contrary to DENR’s purpose of preserving and protecting North Carolina’s outstanding natural resources, including water quality.  In addition, this policy allows mitigation banks-including the Ecosystem Enhancement Program (EEP)-to charge buyers for two restorations, even though only one environmentally beneficial action is created on-the-ground.

[2]  Special Report: Department of Environment and Natural Resources Wetland Mitigation Credit Determinations.  2009 December.
http://www.ncleg.net/PED/Reports/documents/Wetlands/Wetland_Report.pdf

Read more

Something Fishy

Red Herring?

Last Thursday representatives of the North Carolina Division of Water Quality (DWQ) concluded an overview presentation of their mitigation programs to the Environmental Management Commission in defense of credit stacking by expressing a red herring message of fear that without the ability to sell the same piece of mitigation twice,

mitigation costs will be higher

— NCDWQ

and that some areas of the state could

run out of buffer and stream sites

— NCDWQ

to restore??

I’m confused.  DWQ just threw away several hundred thousand dollars and caused an immediate and future degradation to water quality and they’re concerned that correcting the policy that led to this might cause mitigation fees to go up?!  That’s almost as ridiculous as their implication that running out of degraded streams and buffers would somehow be a bad thing.

The tone of these comments by DWQ staff force a reasonable person to ask:  is DENR more concerned with subsidizing the cost of development at the expense of the environment than actually protecting the environment? A skeptic would ask if DENR management is more concerned with protecting it’s empire of programs and divisions than the environment.  And a cynic would merely point out that the Endless Employment Project and the Ecosystem Enhancement Program share the same acronym.

Thursday’s presentation was given at the bequest of EMC Chair Stephen Smith in response to the recent publicity regarding DENR, DWQ, EEP, and EBX that questioned whether roughly a million dollars of mitigation fees required by DWQ, collected by EEP, and awarded to  EBX actually did anything to protect the environment.  According to the NC Program Evaluation Division the answer to that question is clear,

DWQ’s decisions related to this controversy resulted in actual and potential future losses to the environmental integrity of the Neuse River basin. — Program Evaluation Division, NC General Assembly

What’s not so clear is why DENR’s been making policy decisions that degrade the environment as opposed to protect it.  Their public explanations thus far have been premised as simplified versions of complicated issues.  The EMC rule makers need to understand that DENR’s not telling them the whole story.  The most notable omission is that EEP has been charging mitigation fees to developers based on the costs of providing unstacked mitigation credits, their nutrient offset program was at a huge deficit of  compliance,  and they seem to have used retroactive credit stacking, shielded by a process called  “direct purchase” to help balance their books.

It’s time for DENR to stop treating everyone from policy makers to legislators like children and start telling the whole story.   A good place to start would be explaining why DWQ Buffer Interpretation/Clarification #004 was written, and whether it was intended to help every public and private mitigation project that has subsequently taken advantage of it, or just the needs of a certain Canadian mining company.   The first step to recovery is admitting that you have a problem.  Everybody makes mistakes, what’s important is that we learn from them.

Trying to get around all this monkey business, and as a bit of a Curious George myself,  I went to the Man in the Yellow Hat (an industry veteran) who reminded me that at its root, DWQ was a permitting agency.  This DWQ summary, and the Rationale and Methodology for Flexible Buffer Mitigation for PCS Phosphate Company, Inc. help explain the connection between the proposed Consolidated Buffer Rule, the 800 pound gorilla sitting silently at the back of all these public policy meetings, and DENR’s hesitancy to correct their mistake.

PCS Phosphate is currently pursuing a permit to make what could be the largest single impact to water quality in the state of North Carolina and they’re using the Consolidated Buffer Rule to help do it.  But DWQ’s most recent version of the Rule was not only a fix for PCS, but also a fix for DENR’s recently publicized policy problems.  Lucky for the environment, it has been temporarily tabled.  Maybe next time it’s presented they’ll stop monkeying around and call it what it is, The Rule to Help PCS Get Its Permit and Help DWQ Cover Its Ass.  Just goes to show that the Man in the Yellow Hat knows what he’s talking about, at its root DWQ is a permitting agency.

However, this still doesn’t help explain the DENR Assistant Secretary’s response when asked by members of the ERC on December 17th if the recent controversial policy decisions by her department had any impact on PCS, because she appeared to have no idea that there was a connection.  That’s a little ironic, considering she has served as legal counsel to the state’s mining commission, the Southern Environmental Law Center is currently challenging the PCS permit and DWQ has been working for several years on a new Rule to help PCS meet their buffer mitigation requirement.

Maybe she didn’t get the MEMOs, or like Peter Gibbons in Office Space maybe she just ignored them.  When I recently heard DENR had engaged the UNC School of Government to do an ‘outside, third party’ review of EEP and its practices I was encouraged.  But then I heard that the Dean of the School was married to the DENR Assistant Secretary. Sheesh.

The real world ain’t like  school and it ain’t like the movies, and sometimes it makes me sick.  As historian Howard Zinn’s book demonstrates in both title and text, You Can’t be Neutral on a Moving Train.   Letters and MEMOs are important and policy decisions have real and immediate consequences that can’t be brushed over by studies and simplified examples.

For the time being it’s looking more and more like the dead fish in the Neuse aren’t the only thing putrid effecting our waters.  In case they missed the other ones, I hope the DENR hierarchy gets this most recent memo from concerned advocates and this time decides to do something good for the environment.

SwampGate: Purchasing nutrients from a wetland bank prohibited by EEP's own rules

As an informational update on the brewing controversy concerning the state paying twice for work done once, “Stories from the Field” offers a snippet from the EEP‘s own rule book.  The rule specifically and unequivocally prohibits the dual use of a single mitigation site for wetland and nutrient mitigation, as was done at least once by a private contractor, and perhaps many times by the rule maker themselves:

Ecosystem Enhancement Program:
“Policies, Process, and Procedures Manual,” May 4, 2008

2.0 DEFINITIONS AND PROJECT REQUIREMENTS TO GENERATE RIPARIAN BUFFER MITIGATION CREDITS.

2.9 Wetland and Buffer Mitigation. Wetland mitigation may not overlap with riparian buffer mitigation. When wetland mitigation is implemented in a riparian zone using buffer restoration techniques that could also generate riparian buffer mitigation, a decision must be made as to which type of credit will be claimed from the project. A specific area on a project can generate either wetland mitigation credits or riparian buffer mitigation credits. Portions of a project can be designated as generating riparian buffer mitigation credits and portions generating wetland credit, but these areas cannot overlap.

2.10 Nutrient Offset and Buffer Mitigation. Nutrient offset mitigation is required to be stand alone mitigation in order to generate nutrient offset mitigation. Any area being used for nutrient offset mitigation cannot be used to generate stream, wetland, or buffer mitigation credits. Similarly any area being used to generate riparian buffer mitigation credits cannot be used to generate nutrient offset mitigation.

SwampGate: News and Observer busts EBX for hitting the punch bowl twice

Quite a find on my porch this morning. The state’s paper of record revealed a long-stewing controversy in the obscure but important world of compensatory environmental mitigation policy.  [EBX paid twice for wetlands work, December 8, 2009]  RS’ principal competitor, Environmental Bank and Exchange (EBX), sold nutrient mitigation credits to the North Carolina Ecosystem Enhancement Program subsequent to the site being banked, restored and previously paid for by the North Carolina Department of Transportation for wetland mitigation credit.  In industry parlance —  we call this a “double-dip.”

Read more

The Flying Turkey takes more air photos

When Pam and the kids and I visit our family in Beaufort, North Carolina, I often take the opportunity to hire a small plane at the friendly Michael J. Smith Airport to take photos of nearby RS sites. I did so yesterday and enjoyed nearly perfect conditions.  Here are some pictures of the Bear Creek, Jarman’s Oak and Lloyd wetland and stream mitigation sites. (As regular readers will recall, I flew Bear Creek earlier this month. But I returned this time WITH my stabilized lens).

I also flew the North Carolina Coastal Federation’s North River Restoration Site, about which I have provided some background below.

Note: If you “click through” the photo box you can more easily read captions and navigate the photos.

Enjoy!

Below are some photos of North River Farms, which is being restored by the North Carolina Coastal Federation. This project is near and dear to RS’ heart. RS owned the option to purchase this 6000 acre farm in the 90’s. Determining that the farm had significantly more restoration potential than could be used as mitigation in the watershed (unless Cape Canaveral were relocated to the NC coast), we contacted the NCCF and suggested they take our option and make an application for its restoration to the then newly formed NC Clean Water Management Trust Fund.

The rest is history. The project is now one of the largest coastal restoration projects in the nation. We retained 390 acres within the farm, for which RS was recently awarded a grant from the Natural Resources Conservation Service to restore and protect. Brassgrill and I will blog in the future and tell you more about this project.

National Wildlife Federation report on Great Lakes Wetlands

Interesting report today concerning wetlands in the Great Lakes area from the National Wildlife Federation.  On the whole, I think the authors did a commendable job for folks that want to bone up on the status of the 404 and 401 wetland permitting programs in these states.  But I found a couple of things that bugged me a bit from the perspective of a mitigation banker — and a citizen.

 

header_logo1

 

Click logo for the report

 

First, they continue to harp on the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency’s flawed study a few years back (p.66) indicating ecological short-comings in a sample of mitigation banks.   I have always maintained this study supports my contention that non-profit efforts to restore wetlands – banked or non-banked – tend to do poorly. 

 

If I remember correctly 7 of 9 of the sites studied in Ohio were non-profit efforts.  In other words, the sponsor did not have a personal financial stake in the ecological outcome of the restored wetlands.  I consider most of the benefits of mitigation banking – not all, but most — to be derived when the bank is a for-profit activity for which the sponsor will be held personally and financially accountable.  The motivation (financial reward for properly restoring a wetland) is more important than the method (banking, off-site consolidated, etc.)  We need to move away from wetland restoration as the province of part-timers and do-gooders 9god bless tham all) and toward a system of professionals personally invested in the outcome of the restoration effort.

 

Second, the authors do not stress large-scale agricutural restoration as public policy moving forward.  They go into exhaustive detail concerning the permitting of wetland losses, but short change the potential to restore those areas once considered “lost.” 

This is a subject you will hear more from me on.  Academics and wetland advocates tend to fight only the last war – protecting wetlands – when additional and incremental efforts would be more effectively focused on the next war:  Restoring the millions of acres ditched and drained for agriculture during the orgy of government funded wetland draining of the 20th century.  Restoring wetlands is not as politically saleable as the pained cries to “Save” the “fragile” acres here and there.  The wetland protection industry of NGO’s and government bureaucracy depend on the boogey man of development to drive interest and support — rather than taking responsibility for reversing the course of failed public policies. 

 

Dramatic gains for water, or any gain at all for that matter, cannot come from lowering the wetland loss in Ohio from 300 acres to 200 a year.  (Or whatever the figures are).  Worthwhile gains (the kind we owe children) will only come from stopping the subsidy of farming in formerly drained wetlands — and paying for their restoration.

 

 

 

untitled

 

This figure is not from the NWF report, but it helps illustrate my 2nd point.