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Cape Fear River Watch and others file lawsuit against Army Corps of Engineers for dredging changes

Published: Aug. 6, 2021 at 1:55 PM EDT
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - A federal lawsuit against the US Army Corps of Engineers has been filed by the Cape Fear River Watch, the Defenders of Wildlife, and the North Carolina Wildlife Federation for the USACE’s latest rollback on dredging restrictions.

At the heart of the suit is the USACE’s decision to allow dredging of channels during the summer months, and the risks it could pose to wildlife.

“For decades, the Corps’ official policy restricted maintenance hopper dredging activities at Wilmington and Morehead City Harbors to winter months. This policy protected endangered and threatened sea turtles, endangered sturgeon, and other sensitive fish species and fishery resources from being sucked into hopper dredges and maimed or killed,” according to the lawsuit.

This past year the Corps dredged both the Wilmington and Morehead City harbors in June and July, and the suit alleges these activities have already killed at least three sea turtles.

“The hopper dredging really acts like a vacuum, a giant vacuum that goes across the bottom of the water body that’s being dredged and just sucks up everything on the ocean floor. Often times that unfortunately includes different organisms that might call the ocean floor home or might be passing through including threatened or endangered sea turtles, sturgeon, and other important fishery resources,” said Ramona McGee, a staff attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center.

North Carolina is not the only location that the Corps has looked to end the moratorium on summer dredging. A similar lawsuit was filed in Georgia after trying to change the dredging window in Brunswick, GA — a federal judge put a stop to that.

A federal court enjoined spring and summer dredging in Georgia, the Corps announced that it would not hopper dredge during the spring and summer in Brunswick, Savannah, and Charleston Harbors, leaving North Carolina the only district covered by the Corps’ Regional Harbor Dredging Contract to allow spring and summer dredging in Southeastern navigational channels.

Although the USACE has directed WECT to the Department of Justice for any comments on the lawsuit, the Corps did release a statement on the changes in February saying this was more of a trial period for three years.

“The elimination of the window is initially limited to a 3-year period with monitoring efforts planned to be accomplished by USACE in partnership with State and Federal agencies. A risk-based management approach will be implemented for future maintenance, increasing dredging flexibility while collecting and assessing data to make informed decisions on timing and dredging equipment in the future. This will improve navigability and safety for commercial vessels calling on the Ports while also protecting resources of concern,” according to the Corps.

Despite the fact the Corps conducted a Draft Environmental Assessment and found that there would be no significant impact, the lawsuit claims that the Corps violated the National Environmental Policy Act and the Administrative Procedure Act and the groups are asking a judge to issue an order enjoining the Corps from year-round dredging unless they conduct ‘a legally sufficient environmental review.’

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