News: CJ Exclusives

Probe of Illegal Dredging Continues

Some believe that an April “accident” in the sound was intentional

A new ferry service across the Currituck Sound in northeastern North Carolina is scheduled to begin August 17 even though the boat has not been delivered and an investigation of illegal dredging continues.

Documents suggest that state and local officials knew dredging would be required, but proceeded with the project without the proper permits.

The plan is for a 50-foot, 50-passenger pontoon boat with an enclosed cabin to run between the Currituck County Outer Banks and the Currituck mainland. Unless the boat gets stuck in the shallow Currituck Sound, it will be a 10-mile, 25-minute ride.

The Corolla landing site on the Outer Banks side was damaged in April by an NCDOT workboat, which used its propeller to cut out a large section of the sound bottom. News reports about the incident surfaced in early July, when Jan DeBlieu, Cape Hatteras Coastkeeper with the North Carolina Coastal Federation, issued a press release. Ferry Division Director Jerry Gaskill told newspapers the incident was an accident and happened when the boat got stuck marking the channel. If intentional, the process is known as “kicking” a channel. The new channel is estimated to be 700 feet by 30 feet and five to six feet in depth. Previously the area was two feet deep. DeBlieu told Carolina Journal that she believes it was not an accident.

In response, the N.C. Division of Coastal Management issued NCDOT a violation notice June 28 for dredging without a permit. The U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, the EPA, and other government organizations are investigating the incident.

Currituck County officials said the ferry service was necessary because students living on the Currituck County section of the Outer Banks would no longer be able to attend Dare County schools because of overcrowding. They said the bus ride entirely by land was too long.

In response, the NC General Assembly appropriated $834,000 in June 2003 for the project, stating that the service was to be in operation on or before May 1, 2004. Dredging was part of the plan when that appropriation was made. According to the project budget submitted by Director Gaskill to DOT Secretary Lyndo Tippett in January 2003, roughly half of the funds were for start up costs, including $200,000 to purchase the vessel and $122,400 in dredging expenses.

NC DOT officials in Raleigh provided CJ documents related to the history of the project, but have not responded to repeated questions about the delays or identified who was responsible for the dredging.

Chief of Public Affairs for the U. S. Corps of Engineers in Wilmington Penny Schmitt told CJ, “It looks like there is some time of violation. We are working with the other agencies at what needs to be done to correct the situation.” She said the Corps had sent a letter to NCDOT on July 6 asking the agency to cease work and fully explain the details of the dredging activity. DOT asked for an extension to late August to respond.

Schmitt also said previous applications for dredging a channel at that location had been unsuccessful. Currituck County had applied for a similar permit in 1996, but withdrew it when federal and state agencies raised concerns about the extent of the environmental damage. The county applied again in 2000, and the Corps denied that permit after state officials turned down the project.

Currituck County officials have been quicker than DOT to respond to the Corps’ inquiries. A July 16 letter from County manager Daniel Scanlon to Corps officials outlined who was responsible for various project activities. The Ferry Division he said, would be responsible for obtaining and operating the vessel, and installing the docking systems at the mainland site. Currituck County would be responsible for the docking system at the Corolla end.

In subsequent meetings between the Ferry Division and Currituck County, Scanlon explained in his letter, the shallow depth at Corolla was acknowledged to be a problem. It was determined that “the ferry would require, at a minimum, eighteen inches of water to operate and that there would be times during the fall and winter months that the required eighteen inches would not be available,” he wrote. He stated that the school system was told that alternative transportation would be needed for low water. He also stated that Currituck County had contracted with a Dare County firm named Environmental Professionals to “commence the process for obtaining a dredging permit.” He stated that the firm had submitted an Environmental Assessment to the appropriate state agencies. CJ was unable to reach Environmental Professionals for an update on their part of the project.

Charlie Utz, business officer of the NCDOT’s Ferry Division offered a conflicting perspective recently. On July 28, The Daily Advance of Elizabeth City reported that “Utz said that neither the dredging nor any repairs made to the sound will have an effect on ferry service. He said the water’s depth in the landing area, which could be as little as 2 feet if the channel is repaired, should not affect the ferry.”

Trident Florida Trading Company is building the boat in central Florida. The company owner Robbie Cunningham told CJ the boat is finished but has not been shipped because he is waiting for the U.S. Coast Guard to certify the vessel. He said the Coast Guard is working with the NCDOT on the matter. He said that once it is approved the boat would be transported to the Currituck County main land dock site.

Currituck County School Superintendent Mike Warren told CJ that about 12 students would be involved in the ferry service this school year. “We are hoping to have time for a trial run before the first day of school,” he said. “Contingency plans for transporting the students have been developed for when the ferry is unavailable. We will drive them around just like we did last year.”

Carrington is associate publisher of Carolina Journal.