NAGS HEAD, North Carolina — Gov. Pat McCrory on Friday blamed the emergency shutdown of the only bridge linking Outer Banks islands to the mainland on an environmental lawsuit that has held up construction of a replacement to the Bonner Bridge.
McCrory wrote to the board of directors of The Southern Environmental Law Center and other groups asking that they drop legal challenges over the state's plans to replace the only road link between Hatteras Island and the mainland with one of similar length.
The SELC favors a 17-mile bridge costing $1 billion instead of the state's plan replicating the span's 2.5-mile length. The group says the shorter span ignores washouts and breaches on the island's main road, while the longer bridge avoids spots along North Carolina Highway 12 through the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge that have been frequently blocked by sand and surf or destroyed by storms.
McCrory blamed the environmental groups for construction delays that jeopardize the island's roughly 5,000 residents and their economy.
"You and your organization are responsible for these delays and should consider yourselves accountable for the impacts to the people of Hatteras Island and the taxpayers of North Carolina," McCrory wrote in the letter.
The General Assembly's top two lawmakers also targeted the SELC after this week's emergency shutdown.
"The Southern Environmental Law Center's frivolous lawsuit is only the latest episode in their scheme to agitate the left and raise funds for an extreme, fringe agenda - this time, at the expense of Northeastern North Carolina's economy," state Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, and House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, said in a prepared statement.
Local Democratic officeholders have also criticized the group.
The regional group's North Carolina director hit back, saying in a letter to McCrory that the bridge might be completed today if local officials hadn't blocked an agreement with former Gov. Mike Easley and the DOT a decade ago.
"The current bridge problem would have been avoided, and a long range solution in place," Derb Carter Jr. wrote. "The current 'plan' for Highway 12 south of the bridge is no plan, but to remain at the mercy of the ocean and storms, endure closures, and attempt to respond in some undetermined ways."
State officials closed the 50-year-old bridge Tuesday after learning the Oregon Inlet below it had scoured out sand around some of the span's supports. Reopening the bridge will require fortifying the bridge's support columns and bringing in additional sand, the state Transportation Department said. Dredging that would move sand from the inlet's main navigation channel and deposit it underneath the bridge was expected to start Saturday, state officials said.
Hatteras Island is accessible for vehicles only by ferry until the bridge is reopened.
The litigation has held up construction on a replacement to the bridge that was originally designed to last 30 years, but which has been made to last half a century.
DOT began the process of trying to replace the Bonner Bridge in 1989 and awarded a contract of almost $216 million in 2011 for construction of a parallel span that was set to begin earlier this year. In September, a federal judge approved plans for a parallel span to replace the bridge, rejecting the objections of environmentalists who support a 17-mile bridge over the Pamlico Sound with an estimated price tag of $1.1 billion.
The Southern Environmental Law Center appealed the judge's decision, arguing that a parallel bridge to connect to N.C. Highway 12 on Hatteras Island ignores washouts and breaches on the coastal road. The group also is contesting the shorter bridge at the state level.