The Peat Wars

man standing in peat field

Laura Drey

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 14 No. 2, "Water Politics." Find more from that issue here.

North Carolina's Pamlimarle peninsula is an isolated, low-lying region, surrounded by salt water sounds which are in tum bordered by narrow barrier islands known as the Outer Banks. This sparsely populated area is dotted with fishing villages and family farming communities in which people have been making their living in the same manner for generations.

When entrepreneur Malcolm McLean proposed mining huge tracts of these peat bogs in 1982, some local citizens realized that removing the peat surface could irreparably damage the ecology and the economy.

An unlikely coalition of fishers and environmentalists joined together and successfully fought off this threat to their way of life. They turned out hundreds of citizens at public hearings, and they vigorously voiced their opposition in the environmental regulatory process. In the end, they slowed McLeans project so that the huge and complicated financing col­lapsed. And they learned how to become citizen activists.


North Carolina's coastal estuaries-where rivers meet the sea in an ecologically complex web of waterways-feed and protect the larvae and juveniles of over 75 species of fish and shellfish. The state's billion-dollar commercial and sports fishing industry depends on the productivity of the estuaries. For North Carolina's estuarine system to remain an important breeding ground for the state's teeming fish population, its salt water balance must be safeguarded and pollutants must be kept to a minimum.

Extensive wetlands, known as pocosins, naturally regulate the flow of fresh water into the estuaries, maintaining the delicate salinity and nutrient balance necessary to sustain fish and shellfish life. Much of the pocosin wetlands are laden with deep organic peat deposits. Peat is formed in a water-saturated environment of partially decomposed plant material which after millions of years becomes coal. In Ireland, Finland and the Soviet Union, peat is burned for fuel. Undisturbed, North Carolina's 1,000 square miles of peat bogs act as a sponge to buffer seafood nurseries from freshwater intrusion and heavy metals. The pocosins also play a crucial role in controlling erosion, floods, and pollution, and are habitat for endangered wildlife including the black bear. The coastal wetlands have recreational value to retirees and tourists who bring much-needed income to the depressed region.

Over 400,000 acres of North Carolina's freshwater wetlands have been drained and reclaimed for agriculture during the past 35 years. Of the remaining pocosins, more than half are slated for conversion by corporate superfarm interests and forest product industries. Only 5 percent are protected by public ownership. Agribusiness has taken its toll. Ditches and canals of drainage net works dug over several decades crisscross cleared wetlands, causing the soil to release mercury, cyanide, iron, magnesium, and other pollutants at levels that exceed state standards. No one knows for sure how increased drainage will affect ground water, air quality and wildlife, or if small family farmers will survive the expansion of agribusiness.

But the estuarine system is already stressed and cannot withstand further water quality degradation if it is to nourish the fisheries and allow locals to make ends meet in the traditional fishing industry. A young shrimp hit by an onslaught of fresh water dies immediately or is forced to seek saltier waters where predators abound. Similarly, North Carolina’s fishers are in danger of being gobbled up by out-of-state investors whose tax write-off ventures may not bode well for the region’s environment and economy.

In 1982, when First Colony Farms and Peat Methanol Associates (PMA) announced a peat-mining project that would entail clearing 15,000 acres of freshwater wetlands on the peninsula between the Albemarle and Pamlico sounds, northeastern North Carolinians turned to collective action. The successful fight to stop the PMA project had far-reaching local, state, and national consequences. With the help of the media and professional conservationists, the opinions of coastal citizens were heard by decisionmakers in the state capital and on Capitol Hill. The peat-mining controversy spearheaded unprecedented involvement of the fishing community in public debate.

Also new was the coalition of fishers who work on the water and dealers who run the dockside fish-houses. Animosity between those who catch and those who buy and resell the product was dispelled by the necessity of working together against outside encroachment, and watermen and women became less suspicious of self-proclaimed environmentalists.

As a result of criticism generated by the PMA controversy, state employees and appointed citizens who staff the environmental divisions and regulatory commissions of the Department of Natural Resources and Community Development were forced to take a hard look at the existing permitting process. The state legislature also turned east and took note of the groundswell of demands for responsiveness to the environmental concerns of seaside constituents. Since the peat-mining episode, estuarine water quality has become a much-discussed issue of environmental concern, from the state capital to crabbing villages along the Outer Banks.

Likewise, on the national level, the U.S. Synthetic Fuels Corporation’s support for the costly and destructive North Carolina project fueled the growing criticism of the federal government’s entire synfuels program.

The victory of fishers and environmentalists in the prevention of a largescale peat-mining project backed by powerful businessmen, state and national politicians and bureaucrats, and a federal agency indicates that new ideas about the meaning of development are gaining clout in the region, which extends roughly from Elizabeth City to Wrightsville Beach and includes some of North Carolina’s poorest counties. In their fight to preserve the valuable peatlands that safeguard tributary productivity, coastal citizens experienced the heady feeling of successful grassroots organizing. For people whose lives are economically and culturally tied to the health of the ecosystem, the realization that they could influence peat-mining policy inspired political activism around other issues affecting their community’s natural resources.



When Winston-Salem-born trucking magnate Malcolm McLean purchased 372,000 acres of North Carolina lowlands and created First Colony Farms in 1973, he didn’t realize that the Pamlimarle (Pamlico and Albemarle) peninsula was blanketed with peat and unsuitable for superfarming. With First Colony’s machinery stuck in the mire, McLean started to worry that he’d made an unwise investment. If he could just get rid of the peat, and plant crops in the rich mineral subsoil underneath, each acre of land bought in 1973 for $400 would be worth $1,200 or more.

In the early 1980s McLean’s prayers were answered by the creation of the consortium Peat Methanol Associates (PMA). On the heels of the oil crisis, the federal Department of Energy had poured money into surveying U.S. peat reserves and investigating peat’s use as fuel. Most of the country’s peat, the researchers discovered, is located in Alaska’s frozen tundra and is therefore out of reach of exploitation. Playing right into the national panic for energy self-sufficiency, and encouraged by the attention the resource had received in Washington, PMA proposed to lease First Colony’s peat bogs, mine and dry the peat, and convert it through a gasification process into methanol for sale as an octane booster in unleaded gasoline. The gasification process necessary to produce 1,000 tons of distilled methanol per day would also yield 217 tons of solids for disposal and 1.28 million gallons of treated waste water. That there was a glut of methanol on the world market and that the technology for methanol use in automobiles was untested didn’t seem to matter.

PMA’s readiness to take a seemingly unwise economic risk and the consortium’s disregard for possible environmental impacts illustrate the power and influence enjoyed by its stockholders. One of PMA’s partners, the Energy Transition Corporation (ETCO), was founded in 1978 by former high-ranking officials of the Nixon and Ford administrations and by William Casey, Reagan’s campaign manager and now director of the CIA. ETCO’s stockholders had considerable experience with government energy projects and in the company’s charter articulated their intention to use political know-how to gain access to federal subsidies for new energy technologies.

The financial assistance of the U.S. Synthetic Fuels Corporation (SFC) really made peat mining lucrative for Republican power brokers. On December 2, 1982, corporate chair Edward Noble sent a letter of intent promising $465 million dollars in price supports and loan guarantees to PMA on condition that the peatmining operation be expanded into another 100,000 acres in Washington, Tyrrell, Dare, and Hyde counties. Such an expansion, however, would be difficult because of air quality impacts and state policies on mining below sea level.

Noble, a major benefactor of conservative think tanks including the Heritage Foundation and the Committee on the Present Danger, was a former critic of the SFC. But after heading Reagan’s transition task force on the corporation, Noble decided the country was in dire need of a private sector synthetic fuels industry. Believing that the SFC should encourage the nascent industry, he sought out projects to fund with his $17 billion budget. Many of these failed miserably, and Noble was finding himself under increasing pressure to justify the agency’s existence when PMA came along. Despite figures showing that all of North Carolina’s peat could meet the nation’s energy needs for only two-and-a-half days, the Synthetic Fuels Corporation endorsed PMA as if peat were a viable fuel source for the future.

By involving the SFC, which is exempt from the restrictions of the National Environmental Policy Act, the Coastal Zone Management Act, and the Freedom of Information Act, PMA avoided having to prepare the usually required environmental impact statement. After years of such studies, Minnesota and Florida had severely restricted or prohibited peat mining because of the long-term risks associated with such excavation.

PMA also had the blessing of North Carolina Governor Jim Hunt, a Democrat. He endorsed PMA as an example of environmentally safe and attractive technology long before review by any state agency was underway.

In opposition to the power of the allied corporate industry and receptive politicians who favored peat mining stood the poor, dispersed, commercial fishers and family farmers. PMA’s plan to situate the peat-to-methanol conversion plant in Washington County divided local sympathies. Washington County, attracted to PMA’s promise to increase its local tax base and create jobs, would be spared the negative environmental impacts the project entailed. Hyde, Dare, Beaufort, Carteret, Craven, and other counties to the south of the site, while receiving none of the benefits, would be confronted with irreversible freshwater drainage problems resulting from excavations in the north. Small farmers, if not directly affected by damage to water quality, would have to contend with depressed prices for their crops after corporate farms put land reclaimed from peat mines into increased production of corn, wheat, and soybeans.



As bureaucrats in Raleigh and Washington, D.C. smoothed the way for PMA, local concern about the project grew. Coastal attention to the peat-mining project fit into the context of increasing concern over water quality, the impact of industries such as phosphate mining by Texasgulf, and commercial development along mainland beachfronts and on barrier islands. Several environmental groups were working on local issues at the community level. A resident of the community of Ocean, Todd Miller, organized a conference to assess the various problems facing the coastal environment and to evaluate the needs of the cosponsoring groups. A plan for an umbrella organization to coordinate coastal activism around issues of environmental, economic, and social importance to the region grew out of that conference.

The North Carolina Coastal Federation, incorporated in September 1982, began to act as a clearinghouse for information about efforts to protect the coastal ecosystem and economy. As the Federation’s first major battle, the fight against PMA created a constituency that retains a strong voice in North Carolina environmental politics today.

The Coastal Federation orchestrated the participation of commercial fishers and seafood dealers and served as a liaison between local public interest groups and national environmentalists. As a result of flyers, letters to the editor, many public meetings, and outspoken indigenous leaders, the diffuse concern of individuals coalesced into a viable multicounty movement.

The progress of the Coastal Federation’s peat-mining battle was closely monitored by the mainstream print and television media. “The media played a big role in our organizing,” says Miller. “The outside interest kept the local interest going. Any opportunity people had to talk about the problem of drainage they took advantage of.” The presence of reporters from New York City and Washington, D.C. down in northeastern North Carolina made it hard for local skeptics to say peat mining wouldn’t affect them, and the power of the media was not lost on PMA’s opponents. The Raleigh-based Carolina Wetlands Project of the National Wildlife Federation’s Southeast Natural Resources Center, directed by Derb S. Carter, was strategically placed in the fight against PMA.

Backed by 30,000 conservation-minded North Carolinians and a staff of resource specialists, the National Wildlife Federation had the legal means to challenge the inadequacies of North Carolina’s regulatory approach to corporate land clearing. Derb Carter and his associates stayed in close contact with Coastal Federation activists, sending experts to testify at state hearings, reminding agency officials in the capital of the water quality concerns of fishing groups, and feeding scientific data and economic and political analysis concerning PMA to the press.

A third organization joined the National Wildlife Federation and the Coastal Federation as a key actor in the “peat war.” The North Carolina Fisheries Association, the state’s largest and oldest fishing organization, did everything in its power to protect the salinity balance of coastal waters. Most of its 600 members, primarily seafood dealers, were unsophisticated politically when the PMA crisis hit. But Clark Callaway, the association’s vice president, was attuned to the workings of the state’s regulatory system, having worked as a seafood extension agent for North Carolina State University before opening his own business.

Realizing that mining the Pamlimarle peatfields would spell disaster for the seafood industry, and seeing that PMA already had a great deal of momentum, Callaway convinced a number of prominent Fisheries Association members to pledge $1,000 to pay an attorney to represent the association against PMA. New Bern lawyer Henri Johnson, a preservationist at heart, worked with the association and the National Wildlife Federation to reiterate the opposition of commercial fishers to peat mining at every step in the permitting process. Her many appeals and requests for public hearings on land-use decision making were a constant reminder to regulatory agents and state politicians that the seafood industry’s objections were not going away.

“To stop someone from using his property, the whole culture has got to mandate that the reason is strong enough,” says Johnson. Fishers who had harvested the waters for generations without poisoning the resource told Malcolm McLean that he couldn’t do whatever he wanted with his land, she says.

The militance of the fishers followed months of patient work by the Coastal Federation. With Todd Miller as president, the federation received a $20,000 grant from the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation in January 1983 to educate people about large-scale peat mining. Few locals knew the project was being planned. “They were completely in the dark,” says Miller, “particularly the ones who stood to lose the most, the commercial fishermen and the family farmers who make up the vast majority in those counties.” As information about the scope of PMA became known, the federation worked to convince highly independent commercial fishers of their potential to make a difference. Educational outreach in this case meant politics, not ecology. Once told how to respond to the threat and contribute by attending a meeting or making a phone call, locals were faithful to the cause in the face of great odds.

Dave Cecelski was one of the Coastal Federation staffers and volunteers who spent the spring of 1983 establishing contacts with community leaders who, in turn, got their friends riled up about PMA. Cecelski grew up in Carteret County and has relatives sprinkled up and down the coast. For Cecelski, organizing in the coastal region meant reaching people where they lived and worked. He hung around the docks and fish-houses and got to know people all over the Pungo River basin. Often a local person, once informed about the peat project, would call a meeting to spread the word and to give people a place to get questions answered.

In traveling around Hyde, Dare, and Beaufort counties to enlist the support of coastal residents, Cecelski found that local criticism of peat mining extended beyond the specific proposal of PMA and involved more than concern about water quality degradation, although that was the most concrete fear. In defending their way of life, fishers took on more than peatminers; many found fault with unfettered corporate development in general. In a sense they challenged prevailing beliefs about the meaning of progress. Poor counties in northeastern North Carolina may be in need of new economic opportunities. But so-called innovative changes that undermine traditional industries such as fishing and family farming are seen as incompatible with the fabric of a society tied to natural resources.

Cecelski recounts his impressions of local sentiment:

They’re plain white persons who make about $5,000 a year and are real self-sufficient. There’s a healthy distrust of industrial culture and a value on being able to take care of yourself and your community.

Cecelski’s experience with one fisherman-turned-activist left him greatly impressed with the information networks that locals put to use once they decided to act. H.O. Golden, a weathered man of 63 and one of the preeminent fishers in the state, rallied the support of watermen and women from all over Dare County. Golden spread awareness of PMA’s intention to mine First Colony’s peat using the same methods he used to find out the latest crab prices — he got on the VHF and broadcast all over the Sound.

Ann Braddy, a Belhaven crabber and mother of five, emerged as another energetic grassroots mobilizer. Braddy got her neighbors involved in conservation politics, a sizeable feat in light of local reticence and sexism. She insisted that her peers participate in the protection of their livelihoods and convinced them they could influence peat-mining policy. Braddy now has a circle of Beaufort County fishers to call on during other environmental emergencies. She explains how she educated the dubious:

With something like that you have to work every day. I was always talking to someone. We went door to door, putting things in mailboxes, telephoning. I did a lot of calling congressmen; I wrote to the Raleigh newspapers; I was on TV a time or two. We had meetings at the crabhouse and at the schoolhouse.

Being a woman, they listen but they don’t hear you. There aren’t that many women that work on the water, and they don’t think you know what you ’re doing.

I think what surprised me most about the whole thing was that people not directly working on the water didn’t think it would affect them, and the whole town is basically seafood.

A lot of them didn’t have time to mess [with it]. They can’t take one day off to go to a meeting because they’ll lose money. What’s that opposed to the rest of their lifetime? I told them it was their one last shot and it probably was.

Coastal North Carolinians like Ann Braddy were not motivated to fight PMA solely by environmental and economic concerns; a strong emotional current and a lot of pride made up the foundation of peat mining’s opposition. “What gets me is how people like that [developers] can get up and say they’re not destroying your livelihood,” says Braddy. “I asked Bob Fri [vice president of PMA] how he could sleep at night knowing what he was doing to us, and he said he wasn’t doing nothing.”

Taking on PMA was especially important because it was a consciousness-raising experience for the participants. “I believe it was a turning point in North Carolina environmental politics,” says Willy Phillips, a softshell crabber in the town of Bath. “The PMA thing united a group that hadn’t been capable of political action before—the commercial fishermen.”



The most effective vehicles of public education in the campaign against PMA were two well-attended meetings. The debates, highly publicized, gave organizers tangible goals to work toward, and identified ways for locals to get involved. The Williamston hearing was set up by the state, and the second which took place in April was arranged by the Coastal Federation. The differences between the two meetings reflected the blossoming awareness and empowerment of the region’s concerned citizens.

Community meetings were held in homes, court houses, churches, and the like, to prepare people for the February, 1983, hearing in Williamston, Martin County set up by the state’s Department of Natural Resources and Community Development. These small gatherings preceding official hearings were indispensable in terms of presenting information to people and strengthening their confidence.

At the hearing, the state gave PMA unlimited time at the outset and only left the opposition a chance to speak late in the evening on a sign-up basis. Even so, the Coastal Federation considered the Williamston hearing a success. Despite a busload of people brought in to speak for the project by Washington County officials, and the fact that attendance meant a three-hour round-trip drive for those who would be most affected by freshwater runoff, the crowd of over 300 was pretty evenly divided for and against peat mining. “It was effective in that there was a lot of dissent even though it was a long way from where we were working, and was in the heart of the area where the jobs would have been created,” recalls Cecelski. “The people speaking against it were speaking from the heart, versus the three-piece suit types. The contrast was real evident.”

The turn-out at Williamston activated local interest; peat mining’s critics became eager for more ammunition with which to confront PMA’s arguments. Fishers felt the hearing had demonstrated the state’s lack of genuine interest in the seafood industry’s concerns, so the Coastal Federation held its own public meeting in a more convenient location. There the fishers and environmentalists called the shots for a change.

In anticipation of the big event, Coastal Federation organizers and volunteers stimulated a lot of discussion about peat mining at the local level and nationwide. The April meeting at Mattamuskeet High School in Coastal Hyde County was planned to open with presentations from proponents, opponents, and state regulators, to be followed by a question-and-answer session. But procedure was quickly abandoned and one observer noted, “PMA really got fried.”

Spirits ran high. The night belonged to what Willy Phillips refers to as “the real grassroots gut-pulling emotional lower-echelon commercial fishermen.” The 600 watermen and women who met at Mattamuskeet “galvanized their own resolve and showed the regulatory agencies they were a force to be reckoned with,” says Phillips. Even skeptics came away thinking they might have a chance to affect the outcome of the PMA controversy. “Up until that time at Mattamuskeet they had felt the odds were against them,” says Miller. “We were probably as blatantly unfair as they had been at the first one, but at least it was our side.”



Following the Mattamuskeet meeting PMA started to grope for means to appease citizen opposition. When the company’s hired researchers found mercury levels 240 times state standards in drainage ditches at the peat-mining site, PMA claimed these levels were natural to the region and that the standards were impractical. Critics stuck to their original contention that high concentrations of mercury were traceable to the disturbance of organic peat soils during experimental mining.

Making a concession which further betrayed PMA’s nervousness about the peat project’s feasibility, the company succumbed to pressure from fishers to address the freshwater drainage problem. In what amounted to an admission of former callousness towards the seafood industry’s claims, PMA promised to lessen runoff by building lagoons and a large lake to lengthen evaporation retention time. “They realized they couldn’t get around it but with engineered solutions,” says geologist Jonathan Phillips, executive director of the Pamlico-Tar River Foundation, a Washington County conservation group.

The fishing community wasn’t silenced by the artificial lake concept. Unaddressed by PMA’s proposed hydrological modifications were the impact of major storms, concentration of contaminants, and the cost of the perpetual pumping necessary to make the artificial lake function.



In taking on North Carolina’s regulatory system PMA’s opponents had two ingrained and complementary barriers to overcome — one procedural, the other ideological. The Natural Resources department’s convoluted maze of agencies impeded citizen access to the land-use decision-making process. Even after finding ways to participate, fishers and environmentalists were still hindered by the department’s working premise that development was inevitable—the natural, even desirable path of the future. Yet with a two-pronged approach — in which attorneys and professional environmentalists handled the legal end of the opposition’s review requests and permit appeals to the staff of the Department of Natural Resources, and in which local activists stimulated discussion among the citizen commissions and turned out uncustomarily large crowds at agency meetings — the Coastal Federation and its allies were able to set in motion a series of changes that have achieved more responsible water quality regulation throughout North Carolina.

State law lacks a coherent means of addressing the cumulative impact of peat mining. As a result of the Department of Natural Resources’ piecemeal approach to water quality issues, no basic rules exist for evaluating the steady flow of permit applications into the state’s environmental review agencies. But the overlapping regulatory commissions gave peat mining’s critics a forum in which to create dissension, and regional citizens got a taste of what it means to bargain with bureaucrats and politicians.

The night before a critical commission hearing, activists served commissioners a home-cooked seafood dinner in Stumpy Point. Afterwards, activists insisted that peat mining and agricultural reclamation could damage the “natural conditions of the estuarine system” that commissioners were legally mandated to preserve. Commissioners began to realize that they were ineffective in pressing change on environmental issues. Environmental Management Commission director Bob Helms, for example, kept his board uninformed of policy decisions. Commissioners sometimes read in the newspaper that crucial groundwater discharge permits for peat-miners had been issued without their foreknowledge.

Commissioners responded by taking charge, beginning with deciding to hold a public hearing on the PMA project over Helms’s objections. The commission took another step by changing the policy that a developer did not have to produce a water management plan until six months after he or she begins to pollute. Now the commission requires thorough environmental assessments, public hearings, and development of water management guidelines before issuing groundwater or pollution discharge permits.

The board changed, believes environmentalist Derb Carter, because members had felt foolish during the PMA controversy. Environmental Management Commission vice-chair Jimmy Wallace, mayor of inland Chapel Hill, explained the change was because the commission wanted to “get citizens back into the picture.” The peat-mining proposal, he said, had a magnitude he’d never appreciated before. “The whole peninsula might be rendered sterile, destroying not only livelihoods but estuary nursery areas, fish, and shellfish.”



Besides working to slow the peatmining project through the state regulatory system, environmentalists and fishers took aim through the federal courts. Seven local and national groups filed federal suit, challenging the Army Corps of Engineers decision that the Pamlimarle peninsula did not constitute a wetland. The Corps had only visited the site in the summer, the dry season. Any peat bog should automatically be considered a wetland — as a basic textbook principle, insists marine biologist Dick Barber. In a federally designated wetland, any mining project must obtain a dredge-and-fill permit from the Corps and it must create an environmental impact statement. In December 1985, a federal judge ruled that the Corps had been “arbitrary and capricious,” and ordered a reevaluation of its decision.



By the end of 1983, PMA was behind schedule. With all the snags encountered in the permit process, the consortium needed more time. It requested increased subsidies from the Synthetic Fuels Corporation. Without additional loans, reasoned the sponsoring developers, their private investors would be likely to back out of the peat-to-methanol conversion project.

Synthetic Fuels had problems of its own, however. Both Republican and Democratic members of Congress had attacked the corporation in 1983, especially its promise of $465 million in price supports to PMA. Public officials worried that the corporation’s allocation of funds was being influenced by the self-interest of its own officials.

Aware of the dissatisfaction of environmentalists in northeastern North Carolina and nationwide, under pressure from political observers on the right and the left and the General Accounting Office, and grasping the economic shakiness of the whole idea, the corporation refused to provide PMA with more federal funding.

The Synthetic Fuels Corporation’s denial of more funds shook the PMA project to the core. Claiming that peat mining wasn’t feasible without supplementary money from the government, Koppers Chemical — one of the largest participants in the consortium — withdrew its involvement. In February 1984 PMA held a press conference to announce the project’s demise and in April 1986, Congress terminated the Synthetic Fuels Corporation.



The fight against peat mining succeeded on two fronts. The issues involved those once unempowered or not interested in public policy, and they in turn challenged those in decision-making positions and brought them to task for their slack and uninformed attitude toward the region’s environment and its people.

As a classroom in the field — or on the water — the organizing around PMA taught coastal citizens about bottom-up politics. The numbers of people involved and the sense of urgency expressed by commercial fishers and environmentalists made the need for serious thinking about coastal water quality and land-use issues clear to policy setters in county commissioners’ offices, the state legislature, and congressional committees. But PMA’s adversaries can’t sit back and relax; the peat war continues on several fronts.

No moratorium has been placed on peat mining. Early in 1986 Malcolm McLean announced a renovated proposal to mine First Colony’s peat, this time for electric power generation. Because no federal subsidies will be involved this go round, the project may attract less national media attention and be more difficult to halt. McLean’s spokespeople are proceeding with the utmost diplomacy; they describe the excavation process as ecologically sound. But McLean wants to see how Chicago-based industrialist Samuel J. Esposito fares with his peat-mining proposal before proceeding with his latest plan to remove First Colony’s peat at a profit, making available cleared land for agribusiness.

Esposito has enticed investors to his peat-mining project on Whitetail Farms in mainland Hyde County but the Environmental Management Commission has refused to give him a water management permit five times, and he is unlikely to receive a go-ahead any time soon.

Finally, feeling the pressure from fishers and environmentalists dating from the PMA controversy, the state drafted a set of stringent and comprehensive peat-mining regulations last winter. After being hotly debated by over 600 participating at a Hyde County public hearing in March 1986, the new regulations will be voted on by the Environmental Management Commission in July. If the pivotal requirement sticks — that excavation cannot produce more nutrients or fresh water runoff than undrained pocosin covered with mature hardwood vegetation — peat mining will be next to impossible, according to Todd Miller.

The people who opposed PMA have a homegrown definition of productivity, formed by generations of farming and fishing, and it isn’t shared by developers who perceive the priorities of locals as backward. Neither land speculators nor state officials, no matter how sympathetic, can be counted on to consider the detrimental impact of environmentally irresponsible development in the same way as a Stumpy Point crabber. In a technologically alienating society in which workers often exercise little control over their workplaces, North Carolina’s commercial fishers own their own boats, repair their own nets, and set their own hours. This independence is at stake if they don’t exercise some control over resource policy and if destructive land-clearing practices persist.

In the effort to save their land and livelihoods, local citizens—fishers, farmers, crabbers, fish dealers— learned about power, control, and trust. “Politics are always crooked,” says crabber Ann Braddy. “I did find out there are still a few good fellers in there that will help you, but not enough.” Clark Callaway, from the Fisheries Association, thinks the people in the state government are starting to grasp the problems facing the coastal region but says, “They still hear powerful landowners with too much influence on one side and three thousand small fishermen and farmers on the other saying, ‘You’re killing us.’” One of the most important lessons locals gained from the PMA experience was that public officials, unless prodded continually, are unlikely to advocate on behalf of the community. Locals are now prepared to prod.