Its mid-Currituck Bridge suit again shines a spotlight on SELC
Best known locally for its lawsuit against the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) over the Bonner Bridge replacement – litigation that tied up that construction for years – the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) has become something of a household name around Dare County.
The question, especially for some critics who decry its legal intervention into big projects, is whether that name can be repeated in polite company.
Founded in 1986, the non-profit environmental advocacy group has offices in six southeastern states, including two in North Carolina, and employs roughly 80 attorneys and another 115 staff members charged with stopping projects that negatively impact the environment. Aside from court battles, the group collaborates with regulatory agencies on everything from climate change and water and air quality to issues that affect the coast, forests and mountains.
On April 23, SELC made headlines again by suing on behalf of a group of plaintiffs to stop the $500 million dollar mid-Currituck Bridge project, which the Federal Highway Administration had just greenlighted, calling it a “wasteful destructive bridge.” For careful observers here, the move came as no surprise since the organization had telegraphed it for some time.
And the group’s website reads: “If there is an environmental issue you’ve heard about that affects the South, SELC is sure to be in the middle of it...”
Derb Carter, director of SELC’s two North Carolina offices located in Chapel Hill and Asheville, told the Sentinel that, “All we do as lawyers is make sure agencies and individuals comply with the law. If there is no issue about whether you are compliant with the law, then you don’t have to worry about the SELC too much.”
Getting people to comment publicly on the controversial environmental group is not an easy task. One who is willing to do so is Matt Walker, co-chair of the Outer Banks Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, an organization dedicated to protecting the world’s ocean, waves and beaches. His response was supportive, but fell short of a full-throated endorsement.
“The SELC has done some things I agree with and some things I don’t agree with,” said Walker. “But you cannot deny their tenacity and effectiveness. So, if the SELC wants to join a fight that protects the Outer Banks, I say forget any difference you might have. Just let that pit bull off the chain and watch them go to work.”
But local officials contacted by the Sentinel were less inclined to express any view of the group. Southern Shores Mayor Tom Bennett — whose town could benefit from a mid-Currituck Bridge project intended to reduce traffic congestion — declined to comment when asked about his opinion of the group. Dare County Board of Commissioners Chairman Bob Woodard kept his comment brief and focused on an eventual solution that would allow the mid-Currituck bridge to move forward. And Kill Devil Hills Mayor Sheila Davies did not respond to a request for comment.
Citing the pending litigation over the mid-Currituck Bridge project, the NCDOT communications office also declined to comment for this story.
Funded entirely through donations, the SELC provides services to clients free of charge. According to its Form 990 for 2018 filed with the IRS, it had revenues of $47 million and expenses of nearly $28 million. According to Carter, 40 percent of those contributions come from between 30 and 40 foundations. One major donor is the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation of Winston-Salem.
The large majority of SELC expenses — roughly $16.5 million — goes to salaries and benefits, with the highest salary ($361,800) earned by the center’s president, Fredrick S. Middleton III. Carter earned $209,361 and a number of senior attorneys listed on the 990 form were paid between $150,000 and $160,000 in 2018.
SELC’s signature intervention on the Outer Banks, its prominent role in the Bonner Bridge project, bore fruit on June 15, 2015 when then-Governor Pat McCrory called a press conference to announce a “milestone agreement” paving the way for construction of the structure.
Under that multi-party agreement, the SELC and its environmental partners agreed to dismiss lawsuits that had blocked construction in exchange for NCDOT scrapping its 2.4 mile Pea Island Bridge project and rerouting a portion of N.C. Highway 12 that is highly vulnerable to storms out of the southern portion of the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge and into the Pamlico Sound.
The law center – which works in Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia – has challenged some major projects over the years in those states. Those efforts include the recent filing of a lawsuit against five agencies to stop Dominion Energy’s proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline in Virginia, as well as its lawsuit against the Trump Administration to halt seismic blasting that is part of a plan to expand offshore drilling off the Atlantic seaboard.
The organization has also challenged a U.S. Forest Service proposal for timber sales and other logging plans in the Southern Appalachians, as well as road-building proposals.
In the eastern part of North Carolina, Carter specifically named a number of what he characterized as detrimental projects that he said SELC is proud of halting since opening its doors in North Carolina back in 1988.
“One of our first cases in the late 1980s was a proposal for [two] expansive peat mining operations,” he recalled. "Both projects were abandoned…the land was transferred to Alligator River and Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuges."
Carter added that the SELC was instrumental in successful efforts to have the U.S. Navy abandon plans to construct an outlying landing field near Pungo Lake in the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge about 10 years ago. It also takes credit for stopping a private developer from turning what is now Buxton Woods Reserve on Hatteras Island into a golf course community in the early days of the law firm.
In the 1990s, SELC joined with several organizations to stop a proposed oil drilling operation off Cape Point. And the group has also been on the frontlines in protecting wild red wolves in eastern North Carolina over the last several years.
Of SELC’s legal interventions, Carter said the organization is careful in what it takes on: “We wouldn’t be involved if we didn’t feel there were legal issues with how the project was authorized.”
“If it is not a legal case, we are not going to bring it,” he added. “We win nearly all the cases we bring.”