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U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to remove pipe, test soil at closed Buxton beach

Buxton Beach Access on Hatteras Island (National Park Service U.S. Department of the Interior/Released)

In a shift from its prior stance of taking no action at the site, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently agreed to remove a pipe that is allegedly leaking petroleum contaminants onto the beach near Buxton Beach Access on Hatteras Island and to test the soil around it.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Savannah District, on May 3 awarded a $525,000 contract for the work at the former military facility to SLSCO, LTD, which subcontracted the soil sampling and testing work to Dawson Hana, according to spokesperson Cheri Pritchard.

On Monday, Pritchard said the contractor would visit the site Tuesday to assess the area.

“The pipe removal and sample collection should be completed by May 24, and sampling results will follow, but a timeline has yet to be determined for that,” Pritchard said in an email.


A long-standing issue

Storms beginning last August caused erosion that exposed infrastructure—including large slabs of concrete, metal cables and rebar, plastic pipes and the metal pipe now slated for removal—and led to reports of petroleum contamination along the beach and in the ocean water.

The National Park Service formally closed the stretch of beach Sept. 1 and expanded the closure in March from two-tenths of a mile to approximately three-tenths of a mile.

The site is part of a 25-acre area the National Park Service formerly leased to the military.

The U.S. Navy base that operated there from 1956-84 was the site of a secret submarine monitoring project that was kept classified until 1991, the end of the Cold War. The facility was then used as a U.S. Coast Guard base until 2013 before returning to park service control.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Formerly Used Defense Sites (FUDS) Program is tasked with cleanup of former military sites that came out of Department of Defense control prior to Oct. 17, 1986.

USACE testing had detected “the presence of weathered petroleum and diesel range organics” at the Buxton site, spokesperson Benjamin Garrett had said in a Nov. 1 email. On Feb. 13, Garrett said the FUDS Program would not take action at the Buxton site because it was unable to find a source for the petroleum contamination.

The shift follows months of public outcry over the site.

The Dare County Board of Commissioners in March adopted a resolution requesting immediate cleanup and brought local concerns to North Carolina’s legislative delegation during an in-person meeting in Washington, D.C., last month.

Chairman Bob Woodard, Vice Chairman Wally Overman and Commissioner Danny Couch, along with County Manager and Attorney Bobby Outten, traveled to D.C. about three weeks ago, and met with U.S. Senators Thom Tillis and Ted Budd, Woodard said at the beginning of Tuesday’s commissioners’ meeting.

“I can’t help but believe that we made some progress because, quite honestly, the Army Corps of Engineers out of the Savannah District—[National Parks of Eastern North Carolina] Superintendent [David] Hallac had been working with those folks for almost eight months and not getting much response out of that group,” Woodard said. “So…I feel like just three weeks ago, in this short period of time, that we did make some progress meeting with our legislators in D.C.”

On May 1, a meeting not announced to the public took place between the USACE leadership team, the National Park Service and Dare County commissioners.

The USACE team included Col. Matthew McCulley, South Atlantic Division deputy commander; Col. Ron Sturgeon, Savannah District, commander; Sandy Gibson, South Atlantic Division, Senior Environmental Program manager and Glenn Marks, Savannah District Reimbursable Branch chief, according to a May 3 press release about the meeting.

“I wanted to see the site firsthand, and more importantly, I wanted to meet the agency representatives who live and work here,” Sturgeon said in the release. “I want them to know, even though it’s a slow process, we are making progress, we take this matter seriously and have made it a priority since it was first reported.”

The leadership team understands the community’s frustrations and promised to communicate better with the local community, according to the release.

“In addition to the contract for the pipe getting awarded and engaging in more communication, a research team from the Environmental and Munitions Center of Expertise is currently doing a deep dive into the site, researching archived facility and real estate records, prior removal and remediation actions undertaken at the site, maps and other information provided to the Army Corps of Engineers that are associated with the site,” the release said.

The FUDS Program cannot address infrastructure removal, but the USACE will look into other federal programs to see if any might be able to address it, according to the release.


A continuing push

Public comment at Tuesday’s commissioners’ meeting centered on the Buxton beach cleanup.

Heather Jennette, speaking on behalf of the newly formed Buxton Civic Association, said, “We want to thank you for taking that fight to Washington, and we also hope to share some of the credit for getting this momentum going.”

Association members ask the board “to assist us in keeping this momentum going and to help expedite a solution to these hazards, which have the potential to really devastate our community,” Jennette said. “As you mentioned, this area is a half a mile from Cape Point and the [Cape Hatteras] Lighthouse. It’s home to one of the most iconic surfing breaks on the East Coast.”

Breaking with meeting tradition, Woodard immediately responded to Jennette’s comment.

Woodard reiterated that after eight months of inaction, it took the commissioners going to D.C. to prompt “the Savannah District to get off their you-know-what.”

“I didn’t know how to politely ask you to step on their neck,” Jennette said, to audience laughter.

Woodard assured her the board would keep the pressure up and said it was in the process of organizing a public meeting with USACE in Buxton, likely at the Fessenden Center and tentatively being set for May 14 at 6 p.m.

Aida Havel, a Salvo resident, said she was “incredibly proud” of the Buxton Civic Association and fully supported Jennette’s comments.

“As I understand it, the Corps has only agreed to remove one pipe and perhaps whatever it is attached to,” Havel said. “We all know that that is not nearly enough. This cleanup effort is going to take months and perhaps years. While we have the Corps’ attention, we—all of us, you and the citizens—must keep the pressure on, whether it is the Corps, the Navy or the Coast Guard.”

Speaking from a satellite site for the commissioners’ meeting in Buxton, Susan Sigmon agreed.

“We cannot accept anything less than full remediation,” Sigmon said.


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