Living shoreline project

Arendell Engineers contractors dredge the harbor near Atlantic for part of a N.C. Coastal Federation living shoreline project recently. (John Wade photo)

MOREHEAD CITY — Even if they can’t gather in groups, two local environmental groups are still pursuing their missions of environmental protection.

The N.C. Coastal Fedearation and the Crystal Coast Waterkeeper Office are still working to protect and restore the environment, in spite of the difficulties created by the novel coronavirus outbreak. The NCCF, with its headquarters in Ocean, is a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the coastal environment in North Carolina, while the waterkeeper office, located in Morehead City, is the local chapter of the international Waterkeeper Alliance and is dedicated to protecting the waters, land and communities of the Crystal Coast and offshore Atlantic Ocean.

NCCF Executive Director Todd Miller said Monday the federation is able to continue with much of its work even with the ongoing public health emergency.

“We’re continuing with our policy and restoration projects as they relate to oysters, water quality, living shorelines, marine debris and overall coastal management enhancements,” he said. “The federation hasn’t been able to engage volunteers and students in fieldwork. Instead, we’re hiring contractors who can continue with our projects that are conducted in locations that allow them to work in small teams and in remote locations that don’t involve the public.”

The federation has seven ongoing restoration projects in Carteret County as of Monday:

•    Building more than 1,000 feet of living shoreline at White Point in Atlantic at the entrance to the community harbor.

•    Building a living shoreline at Carteret Community College.

•    Designing and getting N.C. Department of Transportation permitting for a living shoreline along Highway 24 in Cedar Point.

•    Building numerous living shorelines with private contractors on private shorelines and public property through cost-share incentive programs.

•    Launching a major marine debris cleanup program with the N.C. Division of Coastal Management, hiring contractors to remove abandoned vessels and other storm-related marine debris.

•    Working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service to complete wetland restoration and the North River Wetlands Preserve.

•    Hiring contractors to install stormwater retrofits as part of grant-funded projects in Beaufort and Pine Knoll Shores.

The federation also has policy initiatives it’s working on with various partners. These include encouraging the use of natural flood reduction strategies and water quality protection measures, submitting recommendations to the N.C. General Assembly on encouraging shellfish mariculture and maintaining opposition to offshore oil and gas exploration and development.

Mr. Miller said the federation is also continuing to maintain its protected properties, including trash collection along the Patsy Pond Nature Trail in Croatan National Forest and at Hoop Hole Creek in Atlantic Beach.

“The Patsy Pond Nature Trail has been getting heavy use by families and hikers,” Mr. Miller said, “since other recreational opportunities in the county have been shut down. We’ve posted signs at these trails, reminding users to maintain social distancing.”

This isn’t to say the federation hasn’t been affected by the outbreak. Mr. Miller said staff have had to cancel all in-person meetings and move others to virtual formats.

“We canceled a statewide meeting in Raleigh…to work on advancing the use of nature-based solutions to flooding and water quality that was scheduled for March 25,” he said. “We held that meeting via Zoom, holding four work-group meetings, two at a time, that same day.”

Another meeting planned for later this year might be affected as well, and all the federation’s school group projects have been canceled.

“We’re evaluating whether or not we can hold the Pelican Awards Celebration in early August at the Crystal Coast Civic Center, an event that normally attracts around 500 people,” Mr. Miller said.

While the federation was in a strong financial position at the beginning of the outbreak, according to the executive director, it’s still worried about the “lingering economic effects of this crisis” due to the condition of the economy and government budget deficits.

“We’re being very careful with all our costs,” he said, “and looking to maintain our work in the most cost-effective manner possible.”

Meanwhile, in Morehead City, Crystal Coast Waterkeeper Larry Baldwin said “we’re still out there,” monitoring the local coastal environment and the health of the waters.

“We’re practicing the social distancing thing,” Mr. Baldwin said. “Investigations (of reports of pollution) that would have involved more than one of us is now just me. It’s a bit more difficult to get some government agencies to respond…we’re still concerned about offshore exploration and things going on ‘behind the scenes’ with environmental protection.”

Due to the outbreak, the federal Environmental Protection Agency has reduced its enforcement efforts. Mr. Baldwin said that’s a “big concern we’re trying to stay on top of.”

This is particularly concerning to the waterkeeper office in relation to opposing offshore oil and gas exploration. In recent years, companies have sought to conduct seismic surveys and other exploratory activities for fossil fuels off the East Coast, including off North Carolina, but local governments, organizations and individuals have voiced opposition to the proposal, citing concerns about environmental impacts.

“We remind the public our environment is an incredible natural resource,” Mr. Baldwin said. “We shouldn’t allow people to take advantage of this outbreak to circumvent environmental protection measures.”

On a more day-to-day scale, Mr. Baldwin said the waterkeeper office continues to hold cleanups using social distancing measures.

“We’re doing a lot of communication by phone and Zoom,” he said. “We’re still working to stay on top of things; it’s what the public deserves, and we appreciate the public’s support.”

Crystal Coast Riverwatch, the waterkeeper office’s parent organization, is taking part in the Global Solo Cleanup the week of Earth Day, this week. Riverwatch Executive Director Lisa Rider said Monday their environmental work “hasn’t slowed down.”  

“We’re just using different methods due to social distancing,” she said.

Contact Mike Shutak at 252-723-7353, email mike@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter at @mikesccnt.

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