BURGAW — Months of public pressure came to a head last night as the Pender County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to spend $600,000 on the removal of hurricane debris along private unpaved roads in the county.
After the resolution passed the crowd of more than 60 residents, packed into the county public assembly room, gave the commissioners a standing ovation.
“That doesn’t happen too often. We have to get you mad to get a standing ovation,” commissioner David Williams said.
Before the meeting, a petition had been signed by more than 2,700 residents urging the council to re-consider a failed motion, put forth by Williams earlier in the month, to divert funds earmarked for a future county jail to pick up the debris. At the time other commissioners cited concerns of the county’s drained fund balance as well as the uncertainty of FEMA reimbursements for debris removal on private dirt roads.
But on Monday Steve Clark, the county’s federal grant consultant, recalled telling the council on Nov. 5 that FEMA had relaxed reimbursement standards for such debris removal.
Furthermore, Clark said he received support from FEMA and state officials earlier in the day to push an expedited reimbursement process for the county to receive an advance on 75 percent of debris removal expenses.
“This happens often … because [FEMA] understands there may be hardships out there for counties and municipalities,” Clark said.
“Well I think you can call this a hardship,” Chairman George Brown said.
Commissioner Jackie Newton also said she had discussed such a “cover gap between invoicing and FEMA reimbursement” with Governor Roy Cooper last week.
More than 700,000 cubic yards of debris have so far been hauled at a cost of $6.5 million, according to Tony Swain of contractor DRC Emergency Services. Assuming FEMA’s expedited reimbursement process goes through, $4.8 million of these costs would be advanced to the county.
Additionally, Newton and Brown confirmed that a prior loan of $4.9 million to Pender County Schools for mold and mildew remediation would be repaid within the week.
What about debris on private property?
Although the majority of the board expressed relief that the issue would finally be addressed, commissioner David Piepmeyer continued to voice skepticism.
“Now we’re going to open up the gates for all private roads. It can morph into whatever it morphs into, and we’re going to have to deal with all those costs when they come,” Piepmeyer said.
But according to Clark, the county already has a mandate for people along private roads to bring out debris to paved roads; if left unattended now the debris would eventually make its way to those areas anyway, only delaying the inevitable costs incurred by the county.
“All we’re doing is just giving them permission to go down those roads [now],” Clark said.
Board members and the county attorney eventually agreed to a scope of which areas would receive priority — pockets of N.C. 53 and 210 in the eastern part of the county — with a cap of $600,000 set specifically for private unpaved roads.
In the meantime, Clark said he was constructing a formal letter to FEMA stating that the county wishes to remove large mounds of debris that have accumulated on people’s private property. Under current FEMA requirements for reimbursement, counties and municipalities must “get blessing from FEMA” by showing health and safety issues — or even the potential of health and safety issues.
According to Clark, “feedback has been very positive” and such properties would be considered eligible per FEMA standards.
Residents speak up
Lawrence Still owns a piece of land on the corner of N.C. 53 and Cape Fear Boulevard that has been a popular, illegal drop-off site for debris from individuals and local contractors, according to multiple county officials. Swain estimated that stretch of highway to contain about 16,000 cubic yards of debris.
“I didn’t authorize it, couldn’t stop it,” Still said about the illegal dumping. When he was first able to get back to the area after Florence, he said he was unable to even reach his property.
Lifetime Pender County resident Burton Chadwick, 72, gave an ultimatum to the commissioners seated before him.
“You county commissioners have two choices: either you can get the trash removed or you can resign for not doing your job,” Chadwick said. “You don’t pick up the trash from [some] of the residents of Pender County and discriminate against the other residents, whether they’re on a dirt road or whether they’re on a paved road. They pay taxes.”
For Samantha Worrell, who was involved with distributing the petition, the largest concern is the environmental hazards presented by uncollected mounds of debris.
“It could have mold, bacteria, lead, asbestos, PCBs — all dangerously seeping into our ground and into our water,” Worrell said.
As for the road ahead, Clark and Swain projected debris pick-up to last through December.
“The [construction and demolition debris] will keep coming out. People are still trying to find contractors to clear houses out; people are waiting on insurance to fix houses — you’re probably looking all the way through Christmas at least,” Swain said.
Mark Darrough can be reached at Mark@Localvoicemedia.com