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The Top 10 Endangered Places in the Southeastern U.S.

Southern Environmental Law Center

Announced Jan. 26, the Southern Environmental Law Center's (SELC) 4th annual list of the Top 10 Endangered Places of the Southeast targets areas of exceptional ecological, scenic, or cultural value that are facing immediate, possibly irreversible threats—and the important actions needed in 2012 to protect them. Many of the areas on this year’s list are endangered by pressure to undercut environmental protections and to lower the hurdles for potentially destructive projects, whether it’s fracking in the North Carolina Piedmont, mining uranium in Virginia, or deepwater drilling off the coast of Alabama.

“Under the guise of promoting economic growth, anti-environmental forces are working in Congress, in state legislatures, and in government agencies to gut our most essential safeguards,” said Marie Hawthorne, SELC’s director of development. “But doing away with effective laws and enforcement will accomplish nothing except sacrifice natural treasures like those on our Top 10 list, and other resources that make the South such a great place to live, work, and raise our families. We owe it to ourselves—and to future generations—to make sure this doesn’t happen.

Following is SELC's 4th annual Top 10 Endangered Places of the Southeast:

1. Alabama's Coast

What's at Stake?

Miles of white sandy beaches, wetlands, bays, and swamps that support vibrant tourism and fishing industries; habitat for migratory birds, turtles, and rare species; economic health of coastal communities; public health.

The Threat

Future spills on the scale of the Deepwater Horizon disaster due to the absence of meaningful reforms of oil industry practices or government policies.

Alabama’s coast is on SELC’s endangered list for the second year in a row because a disaster on the scale of the Deepwater Horizon could happen again. The government is back to business as usual, rubber-stamping risky deepwater projects with the same flawed assumptions that led to the BP spill—almost as if it never happened.

In June 2011, for example, the Bureau of Oceans Energy Management (BOEM) gave Shell Oil the green light to drill an exploratory well off of Alabama’s coast in waters 2,000 feet deeper than the Horizon well, and without the enhanced environmental review promised immediately after the BP spill. Worse, regulators acknowledge that the operations could result in an oil spill almost ten times bigger than the BP disaster. SELC believes this approach is irresponsible and illegal, and blatantly ignores the devastating impacts to Gulf wildlife, the tourism and fishing industries, and coastal communities caused by the Deepwater Horizon disaster.  

SELC is challenging BOEM’s decision as part of our ongoing multi-front offensive, including lawsuits, activity in Congress, and engagement with federal agencies to end industry control of offshore drilling and prevent future disasters.

2. Dawson Forest, Georgia

What's at Stake?

Habitat for federally protected fish species found nowhere else in the world; 1,200 acres of forest; a haven for hunters, anglers, horseback riders, hikers, cyclists and paddlers; water supplies for downstream communities.

The Threat

A massive, unnecessary, $650 million proposed reservoir on Shoal Creek that would be filled with 100 million gallons of water per day pumped from the Etowah River.

An hour’s drive north of Atlanta, Dawson Forest Wildlife Management Area is a 10,000-acre wooded refuge for hunters, anglers, paddlers, and bikers who enjoy miles of scenic backcountry trails criss-crossed by the Etowah River. Shoal Creek, a major tributary feeding the Etowah, is home to federally protected fish species found nowhere else in the world.

Unfortunately, Dawson Forest is threatened by a massive, unnecessary, expensive proposed reservoir that would drain 100 million gallons per day from the Etowah River to fuel metro Atlanta’s ever-growing water supply demand. The Etowah would lose a quarter of its water during high-flow months—and during the low-flow season, withdrawals would drain nearly 100 percent of the river’s volume, wiping out aquatic life and diminishing water supplies for downstream communities in Cherokee, Cobb, Bartow, and Floyd counties.

The Dawson Forest project is one of a half-dozen new reservoirs being proposed outside metro Atlanta, illustrating a misguided notion among Georgia leaders that these costly, destructive projects are the first and best solution to meeting Georgia’s water supply needs. But SELC and our partners view new reservoirs as a last resort when there are far more cost-effective, less damaging, and readily available options available. First and foremost, we are advocating the full implementation of water conservation and efficiency measures in metro Atlanta, coupled with expanding the city’s existing reservoirs to their full capacity. This solution could virtually eliminate the need for new reservoirs at a fraction of the cost to Georgia’s environment, taxpayers, and downstream communities.

We are also pushing back against efforts to lower the regulatory hurdles for reservoir proposals, including the use of a new law that eases the way for public-private partnerships to develop reservoirs and recoup costs with user fees.

3. Catawba—Wateree River Basin, North Carolina and South Carolina

What's at Stake?

A river system that drains 5,000 miles of waterways and provides drinking water and recreation for hundreds of thousands of people.

The Threat

The impacts of electric power generation and unnecessary reservoir projects.

Comprising 5,000 miles of waterways, the Catawba-Wateree river system originates on the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge and then winds through the rapidly urbanizing North Carolina Piedmont before entering the lush lowlands of South Carolina. Along its 300-mile route, it provides clean water and recreation for hundreds of thousands of people. Threats endangering the health of this vital resource include:

Pollution from Coal Ash Sites. Coal-fired power plants generate millions of tons of ash, which typically has been dumped into unlined and poorly monitored ponds and landfills. Five of the most hazardous coal ash ponds in the U.S. are on the Catawba-Wateree River and its tributaries, including a site that has discharged arsenic-laden pollution for years. SELC has filed suit to compel South Carolina Electric and Gas to clean it up.

Water Withdrawals by Power Plants. According to a recent study by the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Catawba River ranks among the 25 watersheds nationwide that suffer from the highest levels of water-supply stress due to the water demands of power plants for steam production and cooling purposes.

Hydroelectric Dams. Over the last century, much of the Catawba-Wateree was impounded to generate electricity, and for decades, power companies have been allowed to operate their dams in ways that disrupt healthy stream flows and fish migration. As Duke Energy applies for a new federal license for a series of five hydroelectric plants in South Carolina, it is seeking to trade land and cash for permission to maintain harmfully low flows in the Catawba-Wateree for the next fifty years. Learn more about SELC's legal action to protect the river.

Unnecessary Reservoir Projects. Two counties—one in North Carolina and another in South Carolina—have proposed a 92-acre reservoir off the main channel of the Catawba-Wateree that is sure to fuel more sprawl and pollution in the Charlotte metro area. What’s more, water withdrawn from the reservoir would be discharged into another river basin, robbing water from downstream farms and communities that depend on the Catawba-Wateree. If approved, this project would pave the way for other municipalities to build their own new reservoirs before first exhausting less environmentally damaging means to satisfy demand, such as increasing their water systems’ efficiency, encouraging their customers to conserve water, and exploring interconnections to other systems with excess capacity. Such reservoirs often needlessly destroy significant wetlands and wildlife habitat.

4. North Carolina Piedmont

What's at Stake?

Rural lands in the North Carolina Piedmont and drinking water sources for some 2.4 million people.

The Threat

Pressure to repeal a law that thus far has kept “fracking” wells out of North Carolina.

Requiring the high-pressure injection of water, sand, and a stew of chemicals into shale formations, the use of hydraulic fracturing—a.k.a. “fracking”—to extract natural gas has been linked to groundwater contamination, pollution in lakes and rivers, even earthquakes. A study by Duke University scientists found methane concentrations 17 times above normal, on average, in samples taken from water wells near fracking sites.

The gas drilling industry and its political allies are pushing hard to bring this controversial process to North Carolina’s rural Piedmont. The only thing standing in their way is a state law that bans horizontal drilling, which thus far has kept hydraulic fracturing in check. If pro-fracking forces succeed in repealing the ban, state regulators will face enormous new challenges for protecting the Piedmont’s land and water.

Even with the ban in place, gas companies have snapped up scores of leases for potential drilling sites in Piedmont counties that overlie the state’s Triassic Basins, a shale-rich geologic formation that stretches from the Triangle (Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill) to the South Carolina state line. These properties would be transformed into 24-7 industrial operations, with gas flaring, bright lights, and a steady stream of trucks carrying equipment, water, and waste.

An SELC analysis shows that potential gas formations in the Triassic Basins are underneath or upstream from public drinking water supplies for 2.4 million people. Gas drilling could also affect the quantity of water available to the state’s citizens. A single fracking well can require as much as 5 million gallons, much of which comes back to the surface as chemical-laden flowback that must be either trucked away to treatment facilities or stored onsite. According to a draft EPA study, fracking chemicals have been detected in groundwater near disposal pits and wells.

Congress has exempted fracking from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act, leaving it largely to the states to police this industry. North Carolina, which has slashed the budget of its environmental agency by more than a third, will be hard-pressed to provide adequate protection for the state’s waters and rural lands. 

5. Savannah River, South Carolina and Georgia

What's at Stake?

Aquatic wildlife habitat, freshwater marshlands, and drinking water for Savannah and other communities.

The Threat

The Army Corps of Engineers’ plan to deepen 38 miles of the Savannah River shipping channel.

A prime spot on the Atlantic Flyway, the marshlands of the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge provide a vital rest stop for thousands of migratory waterfowl, as well as a permanent home for many other species. Over the years, successive dredging of the Savannah River has allowed saltwater from the Atlantic to chip away at the refuge’s freshwater marshes. Even more will be lost if the Army Corps of Engineers is allowed to move forward with its plan to deepen 38 miles of the river’s shipping channel.

The Savannah Harbor project, which would deepen the river by as much as six feet, is part of a mad scramble by U.S. ports to attract the larger class of container ships that will come through the Panama Canal when its expansion is completed in 2014. In addition to damaging hundreds of acres of the refuge’s freshwater wetlands, the dredging would threaten drinking water for Savannah and other communities. It would also require the Corps to install massive “bubbling” devices to maintain sufficient dissolved oxygen levels for aquatic life in the river, including rare and at-risk species and commercially important fish populations. This technology has not been proven effective.

All of this would carry a price tag of at least $650 million, and it may be completely unnecessary. The Panama Canal’s chief executive officer has said publicly that only two harbors on the East Coast and one on the Gulf Coast would be needed to service the supersized freighters carrying goods along the East-West trade lane. Rather than pour scarce taxpayer dollars into one of the most environmentally destructive projects currently proposed in the Southeast, the Corps should do what federal law requires—conduct a regional assessment to determine which ports can be expanded at the least expense and with the least damage to precious natural resources.

6. Chilhowee Mountain, Tennessee

What's at Stake?

A popular recreation spot and natural area that includes hiking and biking trails and a leg of the first scenic byway ever established in a U.S. national forest.

The Threat

Pressure to complete an outdated highway plan that could push new asphalt across the shoulder of the mountain and through Cherokee National Forest.

Chilhowee Mountain in the southernmost district of Tennessee’s Cherokee National Forest is a beloved destination for people who enjoy the outdoors. On its crest is the Chilhowee Recreation Area, a popular spot for picnicking, camping, and swimming. Each weekend finds hikers and bikers on its extensive trail network, which leads to waterfalls, cascading streams, and views of the Ocoee River Gorge below.  

The road leading to the Chilhowie Recreation Area is part of the Ocoee Scenic Byway, the first scenic byway designated in a U.S. national forest. The winding drive to the mountain’s ridgeline rewards motorists and cyclists with stunning vistas. Three states—Tennessee, North Carolina, and Georgia—are visible on clear days.

Chilhowie Mountain and the rugged peaks and hollows in its viewshed are in the path of Corridor K, a chain of highways linking Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Asheville, North Carolina. Despite the fact that completion of the interstate system made the project obsolete, the Tennessee Department of Transportation is studying multiple options for finishing the leg of Corridor K running through the Ocoee Region. Among them are proposals for routing a new four-lane, divided highway across the shoulder of Chilhowee Mountain and through largely unspoiled reaches of the Cherokee National Forest.

When it was conceived in 1964 by the Appalachian Regional Commission, Corridor K was seen as a means of lifting this area out of poverty. But since then, local citizens have built a thriving, tourism-based economy that capitalizes on the Ocoee Region’s extraordinary natural assets. Pushing new asphalt through national forest lands would jeopardize the intact wildlife habitat, clear-running rivers and streams, and mountain scenery that have made Chilhowee Mountain and the Ocoee Gorge a magnet for outdoor enthusiasts.

Rather than pour a billion dollars or more into a new road, TDOT should focus on targeted upgrades along the existing two-lane highway, U.S. 64—the lifeline of the local economy. This would improve safety, enhance the flow of traffic during the busy tourist season, and preserve the natural and cultural features that are vital to the Ocoee Region and its communities.

7. Virginia and Tennessee Mountains

What's at Stake?

Scenic beauty of the Southern Appalachians, wildlife habitat, endangered species, headwater streams, clean drinking water for downstream communities, recreation areas, quality of life.

The Threat

Weak laws allow coal companies to blow up mountains and dump rubble into valleys, burying streams, destroying wildlife habitat, and harming communities

Dubbed “the Appalachian Apocalypse,” mountaintop removal coal mining has obliterated more than 500 mountains and damaged more than 1,700 miles of streams in central Appalachian states. Forests and topsoil are stripped from mountain ridges, and then, using tons of explosives, coal companies blast the mountaintops off to expose the underlying coal seams. The leftover rock and soil is pushed into nearby valleys, resulting in the loss of critical forest habitat and widespread destruction of mountain streams, many of which are critical headwaters for drinking water sources downstream.

At stake are some of the South’s most valued natural treasures, including the species-rich Clinch and Powell watersheds in Virginia and Tennessee, and Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau, an area known for its world-class biodiversity. 2012 could be a landmark year for Tennessee due to the State’s groundbreaking petition, which SELC is supporting, that would shield the most ecologically valuable areas in the Cumberlands from destructive mining practices.

8. Charlottesville, Virginia

What's at Stake?

Taxpayer dollars, rural countryside, public health, natural beauty, community character.

The Threat

A wasteful, destructive bypass would mar landscapes, cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars, endanger public health, and fail to solve traffic problems

Charlottesville is no stranger to Top Ten lists, but it’s usually in recognition of the area’s exceptional quality of life, unique community character, or beautiful surrounding countryside. Nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains near Shenandoah National Park, it is home to outstanding schools including the University of Virginia, historic sites such as Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, a vibrant arts scene, vineyards and horse farms, and other attractions that draw more than 2 million visitors per year.

This special place would be deeply and irreparably scarred if a long-obsolete plan to build a bypass around U.S. Route 29 goes forward. Described as one of the most wasteful and destructive projects in the country by Taxpayers for Common Sense and Friends of the Earth, the Bypass would leave a permanent gash on the landscape, cost hundreds of millions in a time of fiscal constraints, endanger citizens’ health, pave over countryside, and fail to solve traffic problems. The proposal isn’t new—in fact it was shelved more than a decade ago by local leaders. But in the summer of 2011, the Bypass was revived in a rushed process that showed little respect for public input, skirted environmental review, and ignored years of efforts by community leaders, SELC, and others to advance more cost-effective, less destructive alternatives.

Before it can be built, the road must be approved at the local, state, and federal levels. Local and state leaders have approved it, but the critical federal decision-making process is far from over. SELC attorneys will ensure that the federal government’s review is thorough and that it fully considers updated information on the ineffectiveness of the bypass, the long list of negative community impacts, and the availability of better alternatives before a decision is made.

9. Chesapeake Bay, Virginia

What's at Stake?

The nation’s largest estuary, which supports populations of oysters, blue crabs, striped bass, and other species vital to the health of commercial and recreational fisheries.

The Threat

Nutrient and sediment pollution flowing into the bay from throughout its 64,000-square-mile watershed, as well as legal challenges to EPA’s restoration plan.

The Chesapeake Bay, the nation’s largest estuary, is a place where freshwater and seawater come together to form one of the world’s most productive ecosystems. The bay supports more than 3,600 species of plants and animals, including populations of oysters, blue crabs, Atlantic menhaden, and striped bass that are vital to the health of commercial and recreational fisheries.

For decades, this extraordinary resource has suffered from pollution pouring in from all sides—by air, land, and water. Effluent from wastewater treatment plants, stormwater from municipal sewer systems, runoff from farms and suburban lawns, mud from bare construction sites, and emissions from tailpipes and smokestacks all contribute to the nutrients and sediment flowing into the bay. These pollutants feed algae that cloud the bay’s waters and, when they die off, create oxygen-starved dead zones incapable of supporting aquatic wildlife.

The six states in the bay watershed pledged to stem this destructive tide, but when it became clear that they would fail to meet cleanup deadlines, they turned to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to take charge of the process. EPA stepped in and developed the most sophisticated water restoration plan ever crafted for the bay. Released in December 2010, EPA’s recovery plan—known as a Total Maximum Daily Load, or TMDL—calculates how much pollution the bay can withstand and how much pollution must be reduced from all sources throughout the bay’s 64,000-square-mile watershed.

EPA’s goal is to achieve full implementation of this “pollution diet” by 2025, but it will take years more, perhaps even decades, for the bay to recover completely. In the meantime, industry interests and their political allies are doing all they can to impede the cleanup effort. The Farm Bureau and the National Association of Home Builders have both filed suit to challenge the TMDL. Anti-environmental forces in Congress also have piled on, attempting to pass legislation that would prevent EPA from moving forward with its restoration plan.

10. Southside, Virginia

What's at Stake?

Clean drinking water for more than 1 million people in Southside Virginia and North Carolina.

The Threat

Intense pressure to lift Virginia’s 30-year ban on uranium mining; radioactive waste leaking into streams and groundwater; risk of cancer, birth defects, and other health problems from exposure to uranium or mining chemicals

In 2012 or 2013, Virginia’s General Assembly may be asked to lift the state’s 30-year ban on uranium mining, largely due to pressure from a Canadian-backed company that wants to mine a deposit near Danville. The proposed mining and waste disposal operation would be in the Roanoke River watershed and threatens drinking water supplies for more than a million people in Southside Virginia and North Carolina, including residents of Virginia Beach and Norfolk.

Extracting uranium ore requires intensive use of water and chemicals, and leaves behind massive amounts of radioactive and contaminated waste. There is no precedent for underground or open-pit uranium mining in the East, where the population density and a wet climate increase the chance of toxic and radioactive materials leaking into streams groundwater, and drinking water supplies. The potential health impacts of exposure to uranium and mining chemicals are well-documented and include several types of cancer, birth defects, and vital organ damage.

In December 2011, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) released a study that validates many of SELC’s core concerns about uranium mining and the water quality risks associated with uranium tailings, which can be a potential source of radioactive contamination for thousands of years. The NAS study also confirmed that Virginia state agencies have no experience with uranium mining, and that current federal regulations are far from sufficient to ensure public health and safety.   

SELC is at the forefront of a statewide citizen effort, the Keep the Ban Coalition, to ensure the statewide freeze stays in place. We are also educating key decision makers about the dangers of uranium mining, and making certain that the state keeps its promise to seek public input before any legislation to lift the ban is put before the General Assembly.

Note: In May 2011, American Rivers named the Roanoke one of the 10 most endangered rivers due to the threat of uranium mining.

For more information, click here.

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