Letters sent to NPS, NCDHHS seek action on collapsing houses in Rodanthe

Published 8:08 am Thursday, June 8, 2023

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Undoubtedly, the collapse of houses onto the Cape Hatteras National Seashore beaches in Rodanthe can be hazardous to beach walkers, anglers, swimmers and emergency responders. It also poses health risks.

The Southern Environmental Law Center, on behalf of the North Carolina Coastal Federation, is urging the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services and the National Park Service to do something.

In a letter dated May 25, 2023, to David Hallac, superintendent of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, the law center and coastal federation ask the federal agency to avert “the imminent threats to public health, welfare, and safety and the ongoing degradation of valuable natural resources created by collapsing houses and exposed and abandoned septic tanks in the village of Rodanthe.”

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The 12-page letter concludes: “We implore you to take action to prevent future contamination of Cape Hatteras National Seashore and to hold private property owners responsible for preventing and remediating the damage caused by their collapsing buildings and failing septic systems.”

“I have received the letter and look forward to reviewing it in detail and having a follow-up discussion,” said Hallac in a telephone interview.

The letter to the Department of Health and Human Services is slightly different.

That epistle asks the department to “(1) enforce its existing septic regulations to protect the public from improperly-sited, exposed, damaged, or malfunctioning septic systems at the beach; and (2) utilize the Secretary’s authorities to identify and abate public health nuisances and imminent hazards to address the imminent dangers to public health and safety created by oceanfront houses at risk of collapse, coastal debris fields created by collapsed houses, and exposed or detached septic tanks on any portion of the beach.”

Both letters address in detail Southern Environmental Law Center’s understanding of the authorities that permit health regulators and park service decision-makers to act to stop house collapses.

In the letter to the National Park Service, the law center delves into topics including:

– The hazards posed by collapsing houses and compromised septic systems violate the National Park Service Organic Act and related laws;

– Nuisance and trespass claims;

– Federal regulations.

The park service letter also has a section titled “A Beach Nourishment Project at Rodanthe Would Not Fulfill the National Park Service’s Duties.”

In the letter to NCDHHS, the main argument is that “DHHS Must Protect Public Health and Safety at the Coast.” Under that headline, the letter details jurisdiction, enforcing specific laws and regulations on septic tanks, and abating public health nuisances and imminent hazards.

In response to a query from The Coastland Times, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services sent this statement:

“NCDHHS’s mission is to provide essential services to improve the health, safety and well-being of all North Carolinians, this includes working with local health departments to address any impact on health from septic systems.

“NCDHHS is aware of the septic systems that are damaged and/or malfunctioning in Rodanthe, and Dare County’s Health Department has taken action to address the issues. NCDHHS has been in contact with Dare County, which has been on top of and handling this situation according to rule and statute in issuing appropriate repair permits and working with homeowners. We would refer you to the local health department for more information. NCDHHS remains in contact with Dare Co. to assist as needed and requested in addressing the damaged septic systems, and NCDHHS will continue to follow up with Dare County to ensure that these issues are corrected as quickly as possible.”

In a media release, Alyson Flynn, coastal advocate and environmental economist at the North Carolina Coastal Federation, said: “Immediate action is required to remove exposed septic systems and threatened oceanfront structures to prevent further degradation of the coastal environment and protect the safety and welfare of the public.”

Flynn continued: “We support and implore our decision-makers to use their authority to clean up our oceanfront and ensure that coastal management measures protect our coast.”

Signing the two letters from the Southern Environmental Law Center are Julie Furr Youngman, senior attorney; Elizabeth Rasheed, senior associate attorney; and Emma C. Wellbaum, associate attorney.

Noah Gillam, Dare County’s planning director, reports around a dozen Rodanthe houses are currently labeled unsafe for occupancy.

After a storm, Dare County’s inspectors examine structures for possible damage using four criteria: septic system damaged, egress or ingress missing, electrical system damaged or visually-noted structural failure, which requires a licensed engineer to provide a letter that the building is structurally sound.

The dozen houses labeled unsafe have not met one or more of the criteria.

Once a threatened house is declared unsafe, Dare County’s Planning Department sends a letter to the house’s owners and copies the National Park Service. The park service then sends a letter recommending the owner make arrangements to mitigate damage to Cape Hatteras National Seashore beaches.

After two houses collapsed May 10, 2022, the National Park Service counted 33 septic systems and drain fields exposed.

Another agency has been in touch with owners along the oceanfront.

After a survey of two miles of the Rodanthe oceanfront, Dare County Emergency Management director Drew Pearson sent letters to 51 property owners. The assessment by Pearson and Emergency Management planner James Wooten catalogued the structures that have a “significant risk of becoming inaccessible due to hazardous ocean water on a recurring basis.”

The property owner letter states “When your property is surrounded by hazardous ocean water we become unable to provide public safety services to include responding to routine and emergency fire, medical and law-enforcement calls made from your property. When your property becomes surrounded by ocean water the potential for structural failure increases putting not just any occupants of the property at risk, but also neighboring properties and the public.”

Pearson’s letter concludes in bold type, “During a period when your property is or has the potential to be surrounded or becoming inaccessible due hazardous ocean water, we encourage you to ensure the property is not occupied. We also recommend you have electrical and propane services disconnected during these periods to reduce fire and electric shock risk. If your property is in the rental market, we ask that you share this letter with your property management company and your tenants.”