Documents reveal DOT tug of war over Needmore RoadWritten by Quintin Ellison
State and federal environmental agencies for more than a decade have questioned the need to make substantial improvements to Needmore Road. They’ve also repeatedly raised concerns about the possibility of serious environmental damage and worries about public reaction, documents on file at the state Department of Transportation show.
“As I had mentioned earlier, I am concerned with the controversy surrounding this project,” Tim W. Savidge, who worked in the transportation department’s environmental unit, warned District Engineer Joel Setzer in a letter dated Sept. 2, 1997. Setzer now serves this region as the transportation department’s top leader and decision maker.
In a required transportation department checklist, the district engineer — who surfaces in the documents then and today as a driving force behind the project — indicated at about this same time that he did not believe construction work to the road would be controversial.
Savidge’s warning, however, proved prescient.
In the past few weeks, environmental advocates and more mainstream voices — longtime residents living near the community, among others — have spoken out against the transportation department proposal to pave and widen Needmore Road to two lanes. The state wants to take the road to more than 30 feet across to accommodate lanes plus shoulders.
If done at the level currently endorsed, construction would require cutting out and removing Anakeesta-type rock, often dubbed “hot rock” because of the possibility it can leach acid when exposed by construction.
The documents reveal that even transportation department officials who favored extensive work to Needmore Road have questioned what is now being proposed. One internal memorandum baldly stated that it wasn’t feasible: from an economic standpoint or an environmental one.
The proposal to “improve” this 3.3-mile stretch of gravel road in Macon and Swain counties sparked concerns because it runs through the protected 4,400-acre Needmore Game Lands. Also, the project comes with a steep price tag during a time of economic constraints: $13.1 million.
Considered ‘most significant’ biologically in WNC
The state Wildlife Resources Commission started managing the Needmore tract about eight years ago after a coalition of hunters, environmentalists and residents rescued the land from development. This required the loosely bound group to raise $19 million to pay Duke Power for the property, which was done through a combination of funding sources, such as private donations and grants. The transportation department also chipped in money toward the rescue.
On April 16, 1998, the Wildlife Resources Commission noted in a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers the overall importance of the area:
“This reach of the Little Tennessee River, from a biological diversity perspective, is perhaps the most significant habitat in Western North Carolina,” Mark S. Davis, mountain region coordinator, wrote. “The (wildlife commission) is concerned about potential project impacts to three federally listed aquatic species … as well as other state listed aquatic species.
“In addition, the Little Tennessee River from the Georgia/North Carolina state line downstream to Fontana Reservoir is classified as critical habitat for the spotfin chub. This area also supports an excellent smallmouth bass population as well as other game and non-game fish species and provides habitat for several wildlife species such as river otter, wood ducks and herons.”
Davis said paving Needmore Road could help reduce sedimentation into the river. Area environmentalists also have endorsed this view, though they oppose the scale of construction proposed by transportation department officials.
‘Hot rock’ issue
Early on, the transportation department vigorously argued against exposing “hot rock.” A memorandum dated July 26, 1999, in which engineers advocated for widening the road toward the river rather than cutting into the bank on the uphill side, spelled out exactly why they considered the current proposal a bad idea.
“According to the geotechnical unit, the rock formations along Needmore Road are of the type known to produce acidic runoff when exposed to weathering,” District Engineer C.R. Styles wrote.
“The cost associated with treating and disposing of 26,000 cubic yards of this ‘hot rock’ would be over $1 million. Also of great concern, are the adverse effects the exposed rock cut could pose to the environment. In order to minimize the potential effects, the rock cut and adjacent ditch line would have to be treated to neutralize the acid. The costs associated with these treatments would be approximately $10,000 initially, and $5,000 per year for the next five to 10 years.
“The total estimated cost to construct this 1,000-foot section of Needmore Road by widening away from the river is well in excess of a million dollars (app. $1.3 million). By comparison, the average cost to construct secondary roads in this area is $200,000 per mile. Therefore, from an economic standpoint, this design isn’t feasible. Also, from an environmental standpoint, this design could have a detrimental effect on the Little Tennessee River ecosystem for many years to come,” Styles wrote.
However, after other regulatory agencies ruled out the possibility of encroaching toward the Little Tennessee River, the transportation department embraced the idea they’d once so vigorously opposed.
The change in position is particularly evident in this Oct. 14, 2008, transportation-department memorandum, written following a meeting where the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service raised concerns about ‘hot rock.’
“NCDOT responded that the acidic levels of the rock on this project were very low. With the levels present, runoff from them would not be considered a ‘hot runoff.’ Leaching from freshly exposed surfaces are not likely to pose a long-term problem because the surfaces oxidize very quickly. Any runoff from the surfaces could easily be neutralized by lining ditches with limestone or spraying a limestone slurry on the exposed rock faces.”
For years, regulatory officials working in other agencies have expressed doubts about the need to widen Needmore Road.
A July 22, 2000, memorandum sums up the concerns:
“The general consensus from the agencies is that the need for the project is weak. The environmental impacts outweigh any benefit from improving the road other than paving in place. The very low traffic volumes do not suggest that this road needs to be improved at all. NCDOT will have to produce a stronger need for the project and alternatives that fit that need in order for the agencies to reach concurrence.”
Making the proposal palatable
Despite these concerns, the project proposal survived. And, in the last few years, the transportation department deliberately tweaked the language it used when discussing Needmore Road. Setzer led the charge.
“Per your request, I have reviewed the Dec. 7, 2001, document and have the following comments and suggestions,” Setzer wrote in a Feb. 4, 2002, email to Karen Capps, who works in the project development branch of the department.
“I agree that one of the needs of the project is to help reduce sedimentation, but it is really a secondary benefit of the project and should be included further down. I suggest beginning this segment with purpose (not need). The purpose of this project is to enhance the quality of travel for the current users of the road. The need is to provide a safe and well-maintained road that protects/and or improves the natural resources.”
And, in another email, Setzer wrote: “The more I think about it, the more concerned I am about the primary purpose and need being stated as to reduce sedimentation. I am very concerned that if concurrence is reached under that stated purpose, the agencies will use it against DOT to argue for paving as it is.”
Capps responded, “Joel, you have a very good point. Let me see if I can rearrange that statement some. I’m sure there are other issues that will try to surface, but my plan is to stick to purpose and need and get past this point …”
Setzer also attempted to fine-tune the number of people who could potentially benefit.
“I also recommend changing the designation of the road from ‘local rural route between Franklin, N.C. to Bryson City, N.C.’ to ‘local rural route between Macon County and western Swain County and Graham County,” Setzer wrote to Capps.
Defending the project
Questions about why Needmore Road needed such extensive work also seemed to have been raised internally within the transportation department.
In a memorandum to Carl Young, project engineer for the planning and environmental branch, Setzer wrote:
“At our meeting, you asked for justification for widening Needmore Road prior to paving instead of paving the existing cross section …
“The motivations and thoughts behind these policies and minimum standards are safety issues, maintenance issues, and liability issues. The department of transportation is obligated to improving roads to a safe and serviceable level. Paving Needmore Road to lesser than minimum standards will create hazards to the traveling public as well as the natural environment. It will also increase future maintenance costs.”
As late as April of this year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Office expressed doubts.
“In summary, EPA continues to have substantial environmental concerns regarding the recommended alternative as well as the other paving options. There is insufficient traffic volume on this rural roadway to substantiate the potential long-term adverse environmental impacts to the Little Tennessee River, the Tellico Valley Historic District and the Needmore tract.”