FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Gordon Helm
News Releases 2003
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On October 16, 2001, the Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) asked the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), through a process known as a referral,"(Footnote1) to consider and help resolve outstanding issues concerning the Department of the Army Corps of Engineers’ (Corps) Final Supplement III to the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for the Manteo (Shallowbag) Bay Project located in Dare County, North Carolina. The purpose of the project is to improve navigation at Oregon Inlet, located in the northern region of the barrier islands known as the Outer Banks. The FEIS evaluates the Corps’ proposal to construct two jetties, deepen the navigation channel from the present authorized depth of 14 feet to a design depth of 20 feet, and conduct ongoing dredging to maintain the channel.
NOAA strongly supports the goal of assuring safe navigation for the commercial and recreational fishing vessels using Oregon Inlet. NOAA is concerned, however, that the proposed jetties would cause unacceptable environmental harm to larval fish and their habitat with corresponding negative impacts on commercial and recreational fishery resources. NOAA also questioned whether the economic analysis supported a determination that project benefits would outweigh project costs. NOAA believes that other dredging and navigation aid alternatives could achieve the project’s goal in a more cost-effective and environmentally acceptable manner.
As part of the referral process, CEQ received extensive comments from the public, their elected representatives, and interested State agencies. These included: 1) numerous strong, and essentially equally divided, oral comments from local community residents during a public meeting in Manteo, North Carolina; 2) Department of the Interior comments providing additional information concerning the potential impacts of the project on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, located at the north side of the Oregon Inlet, and the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, located at the south side; and 3) a report from the General Accounting Office (GAO), “OREGON INLET JETTY PROJECT Environmental and Economic Concerns Still Need to Be Resolved” (September 2002).
In response to NOAA views, the Corps provided supplemental information to address concerns associated with the potential impact of the project on fishery resources. The Corps generally agreed with GAO’s conclusion that GAO was unable to determine whether the proposed jetties would be economically justified at this time. The Corps concluded in 2002 that it would not be prudent to expend additional public funds to update the economic analysis pending resolution of environmental concerns regarding the project.
The well-developed record before CEQ amply demonstrates why it has been so difficult to arrive at a decision on whether to proceed with a jetty construction approach to improving navigability: the biological and economic issues surrounding this project have been as highly dynamic as the physical setting of the proposed project. During the protracted project planning and environmental review process, the Corps has worked diligently and professionally to keep pace with the changing situation; those efforts culminating in the development of a relatively sophisticated engineering design that attempts to reconcile outstanding issues. Nevertheless, the decision on whether or not to proceed remains a close call.
The Corps maintains that it developed the economic justification for this project in accordance with applicable authorities and policies. However, following further consultation, the Corps, CEQ, NOAA and Interior agree that due to the age and uncertainties associated with data in the economic analysis, it is unclear whether the proposed project, or its lower impact alternatives, would produce the relatively modest net benefits currently projected. The agencies further agree that there is reason to be concerned about the potential impacts of the project on fishery resources, as articulated by NOAA, and the potential impacts on the National Seashore and the National Wildlife Refuge, as articulated by the Department of the Interior. Significant uncertainties remain as to the nature and extent of such potential impacts and how to quantify them. The agencies express different views, and point to different data, on this subject. Because of the uncertainties in projecting both the economic and biological effects of the project, after further consultation with the agencies and based on currently available information, the Corps has agreed to cease further work on, and funding for, this project. The Corps will use information developed through this NEPA process to inform other approaches to improving navigation in this area of the Outer Banks.
The Outer Banks are dynamic barrier islands of shifting sands with a history of opening and closing inlets between the Atlantic Ocean and the estuary known as Pamlico Sound. The Oregon Inlet is subjected to the most severe wave climate on the East Coast of the United States. Since its opening during an 1846 hurricane, Oregon Inlet has migrated over 2 miles to the south in response to the wave climate’s transportation of considerable quantities of sand along the beaches of Bodie Island to the north and Pea Island to the south.
The proposed project is based on the fact that Oregon Inlet has substantial vessel traffic because it is currently the only navigable inlet between Rudee Inlet, near Cape Henry, Virginia, 85 miles north, and Hatteras Inlet, North Carolina, 45 miles south. In 1950, Congress authorized the Corps to dredge and maintain a 14-foot deep by 400-foot wide channel through Oregon Inlet and 12-foot deep by 100-foot wide channels through Pamlico Sound to the towns of Manteo and Wanchese. The Corps has worked to maintain the channel at Oregon Inlet since 1962. Between 1962 and 1965, the Corps maintained the channel using hopper dredges, which remove dredged sand from the area. Between 1965 and 1982 the Corps maintained the channel primarily by using sidecast dredges, which redeposit sand adjacent to the dredged area. During the early 1990's, the Corps maintained the ocean bar channel using ocean certified pipeline dredges that deposited the dredged material on Pea Island between 1 and 2 miles south of Oregon Inlet.
Congress authorized the proposed project on December 31, 1970. That authorization provided for stabilization of Oregon Inlet with a dual jetty system, including a means to bypass sand around the inlet, and a 20-foot by 400-foot channel through Oregon Inlet. In April of 1977, the Corps published its Final Phase I General Design Memorandum (GDM) and EIS. In July of 1979, the Corps officially requested Special Use Permits from the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for construction of jetties. However, in September of 1980, the Department of the Interior’s Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks informed the Assistant Secretary of the Army (Civil Works) that the National Park Service (NPS) and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) would not issue necessary Special Use Permits for the project. The Corps then issued a GDM Phase II and a supplemental EIS, but in its review of the supplemental EIS the Department of the Interior (DOI) reiterated its opposition to the construction of jetties, because jetties would be incompatible with the statutes governing management of Cape Hatteras National Seashore, on the northern shore of the inlet, and Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, on the southern shore of the inlet. In a Supplement to GDM Phase II, the Corps addressed issues such as jetty spacing, structural design, hydraulic stability, subsurface analysis, sand bypassing, and reanalysis of navigation channel dimensions. The Corps published a Final EIS Supplement II in May of 1985 that included cultural resource surveys, a visual impact study, a Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act Report, and jetty analysis.
In the 1970’s and much of the 1980’s, NOAA supported the Corps proposal to construct jetties as a means of expanding the harvest of fish and shellfish offshore by providing easier access to those fisheries for commercial fishing boats operating out of the harbor of Wanchese. By 1989, however, NOAA found that fish stocks had declined to the point where they questioned whether the project would provide any benefits in terms of additional fish landings. Also, NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) began to evaluate more closely the environmental consequences of building jetties in light of information on the role of inlets in the passage of larval fish and invertebrates into estuaries. Based on this analysis, NMFS concluded that it could no longer support the project because of its view that the level of harm to the fishery and fish habitat outweighed the benefits of jetty construction. As a result of consultation with NOAA in the 1990’s, the Corps concluded that additional fish landings would not occur as a result of jetty construction. FEIS at 6-13; GDM at 8-5. However, the Corps continued project planning based a more limited purpose of improving commercial fishing efficiency, reliability, and safety.
In response to DOI/Corps Task Force meetings on jetty spacing and sand management, the Corps adopted a Feature Design Memorandum (DM) on sand management in 1995 and approved a Feature DM on Sand By-Passing in 1997. In August of 2001, the Corps issued its Supplement 2 to the project GDM and its Final EIS Supplement No. III. GDM Supplement 2 evaluates jetty impacts, the effects of sand bypassing on the adjacent shorelines, and a dredging alternative. The EIS displays the effects of the proposed jetty project by comparison to achieving the authorized 20-foot channel through fall and spring dredging-only alternatives. These alternatives also are compared to a “no action alternative” of continuation of the 14-foot channel dredging program. The Corps analysis states that all of the action alternatives would provide benefits in terms of reduced operating costs of commercial fishing vessels, increased recreational boating, reduced vessel losses and damage, and prevention of 14 accidental deaths over 50 years. Of the action alternatives, the Corps analysis assigns a positive cost-benefit ratio only to the jetty project (based on lower projected construction and maintenance costs and protection of the adjacent federal lands from erosion).
The GAO review of the cost-benefit analysis for this project found that it did not provide a reliable basis for deciding whether to proceed with the project. GAO at 38. The GAO highlighted three main concerns: 1) certain data was outdated and incomplete, 2) certain assumptions did not have adequate support, and 3) the analysis did not adequately examine the inherent risk and uncertainty in key variables that could significantly affect the project’s benefits and costs. In its report, the GAO stated that they “did not assess the net effects of all the limitations we found with the economic analysis because obtaining the necessary data would take an inordinate amount of time and expense.” Id. at 3. The Department of the Army responded that the GAO conclusions appeared reasonable and acknowledged that economic reanalysis would be required before starting construction. Id. at 76. Issues identified include the following:
First, the analysis did not adequately address the implications of changes in commercial and recreational fishing use of Oregon Inlet. The authorized 20-foot channel was designed in 1970 to accommodate increased fishing by deeper draft commercial trawlers and continuous navigation access across Oregon Inlet’s ocean bar. This projected fishery never materialized and the fishery currently is overcapitalized. NOAA and the Corps agree that under existing conditions available fish can be taken by vessels that transit the ocean bar. GDM 8-5, EIS 4-16. Thus, the fishery resources offshore of Oregon Inlet are fully exploited, in some cases over-exploited, by vessels navigating a channel that the Corps maintains at 14 feet between 15 and 23 percent of the time (depending on weather conditions and Corps funding). The existing value of the fishery is valued at $17,986,000 in both the no action alternative and the preferred alternative (GDM 7-17, 7-22), while the preferred alternative is estimated to provide $7,237,000 in additional benefits based largely on additional recreational boat trips and increased “fishing efficiency savings” of increased certainty in ocean access via the inlet. GDM 8-2 – 8-9.
While the Corps no longer justified the project on the basis of additional fish landings, the EIS statement of purpose and need maintains that the project is necessary to allow large trawlers to navigate the inlet safely. The Corps projected approximately $2 million in annualized benefits based on cost savings from reducing the number of trips that would be forced to detour by conditions in the inlet. However, data on trawler use of Oregon Inlet dates from the mid-1980s, when 234 trawlers worked the inlet, instead of North Carolina Division of Fisheries data from 1999-2001 showing that this number decreased to only 97 trawlers. During that same period, smaller recreational fishing vessels increased nearly ten-fold while the total fish landings (trawlers and smaller vessels combined) remained relatively constant. Thus, the use of mid-1980s data misapplied the cost savings associated with deep draft vessels to a fleet increasingly composed of smaller vessels that do not appear to be as affected by inlet conditions. Adjusting the analysis based on the more recent and reliable North Carolina data, and excluding fixed costs that should not have been included, the GAO found that commercial fishing benefits would be reduced by about 90 percent, from about $2 million to $194,000. This cost recalculation is important to the project’s cost-benefit ratio. It also affects the balance between the need for the project and the potential environmental costs and risks entailed.
North Carolina data shows increasing use of Oregon Inlet by recreational boats, notwithstanding the fact that the project has not been constructed. Nevertheless, the Corps estimated annualized benefits of about $3.4 million from construction of the project based on increased use of the inlet by recreational boaters. The GAO found that this analysis relies on outdated and incomplete 1983 surveys, rendering results from the overall empirical analysis questionable. To estimate the economic benefits of jetties to private recreational boating users, the Corps mailed out 3,876 surveys. The Corps excluded responses that indicated substantially higher use than average based on a 60-day threshold that GAO rejected as arbitrary “because it neither accounts for the possibility that some responses above the threshold may be legitimate nor addresses the problem that responses below the threshold may have been subject to biased wording.” GAO at 69. In sum, the project’s largest projected benefit applied obsolete 1983 data to a population of recreational boaters that has increased to fill a maximized fishery, notwithstanding the lack of jetties.
The cost-benefit analysis also may overstate the costs (and effort) of the “no action” alternative and understate the costs (and risks) of the proposed action. Updating Corps expenditures for fiscal years 1997 through 2001, the GAO found that the net costs of the jetty project increased by over $1 million. The Corps also corroborated NOAA’s concern that the Corps record of jetty projects indicates that the sand effects of the proposed project could vary by as much as 40 percent. This uncertainty is of greater importance than indicated in the EIS in light of the lack of any solid estimate of the project’s costs and benefits, the history of failing to fully fund the current dredging program, and the importance of the sand by-pass plan to the project’s mitigation of fisheries impacts.
The potential effect of the jetties and sand management scheme upon the commercial and recreational fishery is a subject that is particularly important for weighing the costs and benefits of the project. The larval fish habitat at issue has been designated as Habitat Areas of Particular Concern by the regional Fishery Management Council because of their high value to the fisheries and vulnerability to degradation. The EIS concluded that “the overall impact of the recommended plan on larval [fish] will be minimal,” EIS 6-17, but further noted that “potentially significant impacts by no means can be ruled out.” EIS 6-16. These conclusions were not based on any field data on the effects of the Corps jetty design, data admittedly difficult to produce. NOAA maintains that even a 10 percent reduction in larval fish accessing the estuary would be significant, and believes that a reduction of up to 60 percent is “within reason” based on a Corps study using a scale model of Oregon Inlet. NOAA Ref. at 6. Based on NOAA data valuing commercial fish landings at $13.6 million per year, a 10 percent to 60 percent reduction in the fishery could cost the project’s intended beneficiaries between $1.36 million and $8.6 million per year.
Using data that is no longer available, the Corps projected that 14 lives would be lost under the no action alternative and that all would be saved under any of the action alternatives. Yet, the safety record of vessels using the inlet has improved significantly in the last 20 years. The GAO analysis of available accident information suggests that loss of life at the inlet in the past often was due to factors such as navigational errors, alcohol consumption, or the lack of life vests, which jetties would not influence. There is evidence in the record before CEQ of some incidents in the inlet, but questions remain as to whether jetties might create their own hazards, or might increase risky activity by giving less experienced boaters a false sense of safety, or whether the construction of hardened shorelines might make running aground more dangerous, particularly given the extreme weather and wave climate of the Outer Banks. The eastern seaboard has jetty projects in a number of locations and there are no data that demonstrate, one way or the other, whether the existence of jetties induces riskier behavior.
The Secretary of the Interior also asked CEQ to consider the Department’s concerns regarding the proposed project’s effects on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore and the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. Interior has been concerned for some time about its ability to authorize the proposed use of National Park System and Refuge lands for this project, because to do so may conflict with its management authorities. This is a threshold issue for the feasibility of the Corps proposal that has never been resolved.
The National Wildlife Refuge System is a national network of lands and waters that is administered for the conservation, management, and where appropriate, restoration of the fish, wildlife, and plant resources and their habitats within the United States for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans. 16 U.S.C. § 668dd(a)(1). Under this statute, each refuge must be managed to fulfill the mission of the System, as well as the specific purposes for which each refuge was established. FWS is authorized to permit the use of any area within the Refuge System for any purpose whenever the agency determines that such uses are “compatible with the major purposes” for which the Refuge was established. 16 U.S.C. § 668dd(d)(1). In 1982, FWS determined that the construction of jetties is not compatible with the purposes for which the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge was established. EIS App. A, DOI comments at 2. FWS concluded that the jetties would create conditions that will significantly alter the refuge environment, resulting in deterioration or elimination of wildlife habitat, and certain wildlife-related public use. Id. FWS and the Corps have coordinated on this issue for many years and the Corps has proposed several jetty design changes to respond to the compatibility concerns. However, FWS has not been able to conclude that the project is compatible with the major purposes of the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge.
The NPS has maintained since 1978 that it would not stabilize any part of the federally-owned shoreline of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. EIS App. A, DOI comments at 46. The NPS position is based on the 1916 Organic Act for the NPS, as amended, and the legislation establishing the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. The Organic Act, 16 U.S.C. § 1, established the NPS to manage areas within its jurisdiction “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and wild life [sic] therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” As amended in 1978, this statute mandates that the NPS shall not authorize activities “in derogation of the values and purposes for which” the Cape Hatteras National Seashore was established. 16 U.S.C. §1a-1. The enabling legislation for Cape Hatteras National Seashore requires that, except for certain portions “deemed to be especially adaptable for recreational uses,” the seashore area must be “permanently reserved as a primitive wilderness and no development of the project or plan for the convenience of visitors shall be undertaken which would be incompatible with the preservation of the unique flora and fauna or the physiographic conditions now prevailing in the area . . .” EIS App. A, DOI comments at 46. The NPS has maintained that the construction of jetties on the National Seashore would impair the preservation of the dynamic nature of Bodie Island and its habitats and species. The Corps has made great efforts to address the impairment concerns of the NPS with respect to the Cape Hatteras National Seashore; but, as in the case of the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, has been unable to resolve this matter with the NPS.
Successful resolution of these compatibility and impairment concerns would require significant additional efforts. Further expenditure of public resources to do so is not advisable in light of the project’s potential impacts on fishery resources and questions about the outdated economic analysis.