How Did Rocks End Up on the Beach?

NORTH TOPSAIL BEACH – State rules make it clear that sand from an ocean bottom riddled with rocks should not be pumped onto the state’s beaches during beach re-nourishment projects.

Yet, a beach pumping project on the south end of this Onslow County town littered the beach with tons of rocks, some the size of basketballs. And no one stopped it.

Permits also usually require that beach re-nourishment projects end when nesting sea turtles start arriving on the state’s beaches in May. Mired by weather and mechanical delays, the town has asked for an extension that would take its project well into the turtle-nesting season. The request is likely to be granted, despite the fact that turtle experts consider North Topsail to be one of the most important nesting beaches in the state.

How this all happened and why state and federal regulators haven’t been more forceful in protecting the public’s beach and endangered animals that use it have puzzled many.

Officials with the regulatory agencies say they have allowed the project to proceed because the town has been working with them on removing the rocks and has taken measures to prevent more from being spewed onto shore.

Orrin Pilkey

Orrin Pilkey

That decision is being questioned by some of the very coastal scientists who created the state “sediment criteria standards” and by environmentalists worried that the lack of enforcement and the extension of pumping well into the turtle-nesting season could set a bad precedent for future re-nourishment projects.

Orrin Pilkey, a geology professor emeritus at Duke Unversity, fought for decades for policies that protect the state’s beaches. He helped devise the state’s sand standards for these kinds of projects He’s dismayed at what’s going on at North Topsail.

“We’re seeing the flavor of our new coastal management program,” he said. “Instead of concern for the beaches, there’s concern for the houses and making money.”

Braxton Davis is the director of the N.C. Division of Coastal Management, or DCM, the agency that issues permits for beach re-nourishment projects. DCM officials, he said, considered shutting the project down in February. Because of the “magnitude” of such an action, Davis said he first conferred with Tom Reeder, who as assistant secretary oversees the regulatory divisions in the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources. DCM is part of the department.

Reeder told Stuart Turille, North Topsail’s town manager, that the state would shut down the project if the town didn’t take steps  to keep the rocks off the beach and to remove those already there, Davis explained. The town agreed to several new safeguard, and DCM decided to allow the project to continue, Davis said.

“That’s a pretty major move to shut the project all the way down,” he said. “We were hoping the issue would be resolved through remediation. As I understand it is going a little bit better.”

There was no political pressure put on the division to allow the project to continue, he said.

To get its state permit, the town was required to sample the sand that it intended to pump from the dredge site about a half mile from the beach. Davis could not explain why those samples did not reveal the rock. “I wish I could tell you what happened there,” he said. “Everyone believed it was compatible.”

The town, under direction of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has placed trailers with screened sides, called rock boxes, on the end of dredge pipes to filter rocks from going onto the beach. Mechanical rock pickers have been plucking rocks out of the sand. The town is required to pull rocks a minimum of 36 inches below the surface.

Project managers and the regulatory agencies are now debating about how much of the beach should be cleaned.

In the meantime, regulatory agencies on Wednesday still waited for an opinion from the Fish and Wifdlife Service that could allow the project to extend beyond its April 30 deadline.

“We recognize the difficult situation the town is in and we are working as quickly as possible to find a solution that lets the project move forward while protecting the area’s natural resources,” Pete Benjamin, the field supervisor of the agency’s ecological services office in Raleigh wrote in an email.

If and how the project proceeds through the requested June 30 extension hinges on that opinion and a biological assessment from the National Marine Fisheries Service. Under the federal Endangered Species Act, the agency is charged with protecting critical habitat from the mean high tide line to 1.6 miles off shore. Sea turtles are protected under the law.

Topsail Island’s beaches  are designated federal critical habitat areas for various marine life, including sea turtles. Sea turtle nesting season begins May 1.

Town leaders had hoped to get an answer by Wednesday as to whether they could continue rock remediation measures past the original deadline and allow equipment from Norfolk Dredging Company to remain on the beach. Dredging company officials said they need seven to 10 days to get their equipment off of the beach and avoid violating the permit.

GlidebyJJ shot this video of the North Topsail Beach re-nourishment project with a remote control drone.

Town officials hope to receive word by May 11, a date the project’s manager chose because that’s two days before the first documented turtle nest on North Topsail in recent years. If an extension is not granted, town leaders have agreed to finish the project in the fall.

Granting an extension to pump is unconscionable to those calling out DCM for not following its own sand criteria rule, one established in 2007 following beach re-nourishment projects on Oak Island and Pine Knoll Shores on Bogue Banks that left those beaches littered with shell and rock.

Pete Petersom

Pete Petersom

The sand being pumped onto North Topsail’s shore is a clear violation of the rule and “utterly unsuitable,” said Charles “Pete” Peterson, a distinguished professor at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Institute of Marine Sciences and a member of the N.C. Coastal Resource Commission’s Science Panel.

The panel spent the better part of three years working out the sand standards that are intended to protect the people that use the beach and protect the species that rely on the beach, Peterson explained.

They were intended to prevent what’s now happening at North Topsail, he said. “There should have been an immediate halt to the project and then the state should have asked for sediment samples to be retaken and a new source area that met the criteria,” Peterson said.

Finding suitable sand anywhere in Onslow Bay may be a challenge because of the abundance of rocky bottom offshore, a point North Topsail’s mayor and Coastal Planning & Engineering, the town’s consultant, acknowledged in a recent meeting of the town’s board of aldermen.

“That’s the nature of the beast you’re dealing with here,” Mayor Dan Tuman said.

Ken Wilson, an engineer with the consultant, said it’s unlikely a re-nourishment project using material directly off the coast of Topsail Island would be able to operate without rock boxes to catch rock before it hits the shore.

Rocks were initially discovered after being unearthed by storms in January. Since then, DCM, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Fish & Wildlife Service and N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission officials have been monitoring the project and making recommendations to the town.

Despite all that monitoring, the beach could be ruined, Pilkey said.

“In my opinion they have destroyed this area of beach for years to come,” he said. “I do not know of a more incompetent project in the United States of America. It’s just really, really unbelievable. I don’t think they realize that that stuff is going to be around for years to come. Years.”

Mike Giles

Mike Giles

North Topsail’s tax-paying property owners are the ones who are going to lose out, said Mike Giles, a coastal advocate with the N.C. Coastal Federation.

“I think in this political climate the regulatory agencies are gun-shy on putting the hammer down on some of these projects,” he said. “This is going to cost the taxpayers of North Topsail Beach an inordinate amount of money. In reality the taxpayers should be out in force asking why did this happen. It’s amazing that the state agency just let it happen. It doesn’t make any sense.”

The town board has agreed to try and stay within the $16.8 million project budget, money that was provided by a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant. Staying within budget means the town will have to scale back on the original project by placing less cubic yards of sand on the beach than initially planned and shortening the stretch of beach that will get the sand injections.

Meanwhile, DCM officials have been meeting to decide what course of action to take against the town because it remains in violation of a state permit to build a sand-bag wall near New River Inlet at the town’s north end. The wall is an extension to an existing super-sized sandbag revetment constructed to protect condominiums and homes from a rapidly encroaching shoreline.

DCM issued a notice of violation late last month. The town, which failed to remove temporary sandbag structures as a breakwater to allow workers to build the wall, has yet to respond to the violation.

Davis said he expected a decision on that matter later this week.

About the Author

Trista Talton

Trista Talton is a native North Carolinian who, shortly after graduating from Appalachian State University in 1996, took her first newspaper job as a reporter for the Hickory Daily Record. She has since migrated to the coast, covering everything from education and local governments to law enforcement, the environment and the military, including an embed with Marines in Kuwait for the start of the Iraq war in 2003. She has been a Coastal Review Online contributing writer since 2011 focusing on coastal-related issues from Onslow to Brunswick counties. She lives with her husband and two sons in Jacksonville.