Leading coastal scientist resigns from key state panel in protest

Leading coastal scientist resigns from key state panel in protest

- in Environment, Featured Articles
Dr. Stanley R. Riggs, Distinguished Research Professor

It wasn’t just the political controversy over sea-level rise. Or the Coastal Resources Commission’s defense of a sea-level rise report.

Or state environmental officials, who are allowing 21 eight-bedroom houses to be built on ecologically sensitive and flood-prone land on Sunset Beach.

No, “it was really a slow drip drip” of politically driven decisions, Dr. Stan Riggs said, that ultimately drove the renowned marine geologist away.

A distinguished professor of geology at East Carolina University, Riggs resigned from the CRC’s science panel on July 25 over political conflicts about development and growth on the coast. He co-founded the panel in 1996.

“I believe the once highly respected and effective science panel has been subtly defrocked and is now an ineffective body,” Riggs wrote in his two-page letter.

Riggs also sent his letter to Braxton Davis, director of the N.C. Division of Coastal Management. Davis has not returned message seeking comment.

At stake in the state’s policy decisions are the millions of people who live, work and visit the coast, as well as sensitive marine habitats already jeopardized by development.

For example, thousands of coastal lowland buildings have been removed from designated flood zones; other buildings have been placed in a reduced hazard zone. In total, these policies can give property owners a false sense of security.

“The legislature the CRC and the agencies in state government have the attitude that they don’t want to scare anyone away,” Riggs said. “It’s not fair to the people who live and work” on the coast, “and it’s not fair to the taxpayers. I want people to realize people and ecosystem are in danger out there.”

Since 2010, when the GOP-led legislature took power, coastal policies on development have often dismissed the science that would curb that growth. A 2010 report, produced by 19 scientific experts,  projected that ocean could rise three feet along the coast by 2100.

However, in 2012, the legislature passed a bill — which became law without Governor Perdue’s signature — that prohibited local governments from defining rates of sea-level rise in order to regulate development.

NC-20, a group of coastal development and real estate interests, prodded Republican lawmakers to pass the legislation. NC-20’s science adviser was John Droz, a senior fellow at the American Tradition Institute, which counts among its experts and fellows many fossil fuel proponents. Droz masterminded a confidential nationwide strategy to undermine public support for wind power, according to a 2010 article in The Guardian.

In 2015, the science panel updated its report, as required by law. But Riggs wrote that it was told to limit the sea level rise projections to a 30-year timeline, “in spite of the fact that the present rate of sea-level rise is already severely impacting the barrier islands and drowning major portions” of the low mainland regions of northeastern North Carolina.

“There are things that could make this better,” Riggs said. “We’re not saying retreat. But anyone not acknowledging that this is happening shouldn’t be in leadership.”

Riggs wrote in his resignation letter that the science panel was not allowed to bring in any additional experts to produced the 2015 report; nor has it been encouraged to meet since March 2015.

“We have to get serious” about coastal development and sea-level rise, Riggs told NCPW.   Following the production of the 2015 sea-level rise report, “It has become clear that our NC leadership feels there is no longer a need for the science panel.”

Riggs co-founded the science panel in 1996 to advise the CRC as it developed short- and long-term policies for the region: inlets, beaches, coastal erosion and the behavior of storms. For the panel’s first 14 years, Riggs wrote, the meetings were “truly exciting learning experiences.”

But after the legislative regime change, the science panel, Riggs said, has been marginalized. At least two scientists, Rob Young and Antonio Rodriguez, left the panel in 2014, in part because of the clash between politics and science.

Greg Rudolph, who joined the science panel in 2014, called Riggs’ departure “disappointing.” Riggs served as Rudolph’s master’s thesis adviser. “He’s done a lot of pioneering work on the underpinnings of the coastal plain,” said Rudolph, who works for the Carteret County Shore Protection Office. “That knowledge not being there is going to take its toll.”

Rudolph said that Riggs was instrumental in the 2015 sea-level report findings that showed the amount of sea-level rise varied along the coast. The land rises and sinks in different areas, which affects the rate of the rise. Zones along the coast are now based on that assessment.

“That’s a huge accomplishment that’s been lost in the controversy,” Rudolph said. “And Stan was the main person behind that contribution.”

Riggs says he is not retiring, but plans to write a series of books and to continue working on environmental issues along the coast.

“We were playing games,” Riggs said of the science panel. “And I’m tired of playing games. I’m trying to make things happen out there in a positive way.”

Read Dr. Riggs’s resignation letter here.