“Cruise-ship battle not so one-sided”: a Dana Beach editorial in The State- “…(the cruise business is) one half of one percent of the (economic) impact of freight.”

The leaders of the state Chamber of Commerce and Manufacturers Alliance are vigorously defending the State Ports Authority’s effort to “aggressively pursue cruise line business” and spend $35 million in public funds on a new terminal to serve Carnival Cruise Lines, a Panama corporation that recently designated Charleston as a homeport for the Carnival  Fantasy.

In their July 22 column (“Cruise terminal essential to port’s future”), Otis Rawl and Lewis Gossett assert that the port needs to diversify “to remain competitive.” Well, diversify it has done. Between 2009 and 2012, cruise visits rose from 33 per year to more than 80. Meanwhile, freight volumes have plummeted. In 2000, Charleston was the fourth-busiest container port in the country; today it ranks ninth.

If a tripling of cruise ships has accompanied a precipitous decline in container volume, the Rawl/Gossett remedy is … more cruise traffic. Strange logic, indeed.

Rawl and Gossett praise the port for generating $7.1 billion in annual economic activity for the Charleston area, but they fail to acknowledge that even at maximum capacity, the cruise business will contribute only $37 million. That’s one half of one percent of the impact of freight. On this and other points, Rawl and Gossett should have reviewed the facts before they maligned Charleston residents who, they claim, “seek to stop” cruise industry development.

First, concerned residents have not attempted to stop cruise visits. Instead, for two and a half years we have asked for enforceable standards for cruise ships, like those every other business in Charleston or Columbia must abide by.

We have promoted a cap of 104 visits annually, a number the State Ports Authority has consistently stated is the market limit for Charleston. But when ports officials were asked to put the cap in writing, they refused. We also have sought a written agreement that ships will not discharge sewage closer than 12 miles from shore, a pledge the cruise lines have made repeatedly but, again, refuse to put in writing.

Today, cruise ships, burning dirty diesel fuel, run their engines constantly while in port. We have asked that they plug into shoreside power so they can turn their engines off while they are docked. Shoreside power is used extensively in cities with cruise traffic. But like every other request we’ve made, it was rejected by the Ports Authority and the city of Charleston.

Human health problems are not the only risk South Carolina faces from an uncontrolled cruise industry. The history of public investment in elaborate new cruise terminals reveals a trail of wasted taxpayer funds. Mobile, Ala., for example, constructed an expensive terminal for Carnival Cruise Lines. Seven years later, Carnival pulled out, leaving the city with a mountain of debt.

The most ridiculous aspect of Rawl’s and Gossett’s column is their accusation that Charleston’s cruise-control advocates have “harmful and sinister motives … to weaken the financial condition of the port so that it cannot effectively meet current customer demands or expand to meet the needs of future job creators,” and that legal challenges are merely “vehicles to meet the needs of selfish lawyers and self-proclaimed conservationists.” Rawl and Gossett also allege that concerned Charleston residents have benefited from the port and that “in their misguided, ill-intentioned methods, they would deny the same success to you.”

Who knew? Not since the days of Sen. Joseph McCarthy (“I have here in my hands a list …”) have we seen such a dark conspiracy. Presumably, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the World Monuments Fund share these same subversive motives, because both have placed Charleston on their “watch lists” due to the risks of uncontrolled cruise visitation.

With all of their chest-beating, Rawl and Gossett miss the most important point. The cruise debate has diverted time, energy and money away from the Ports Authority’s ability to carry out its core mission. Their persistence in promoting what port management describes as a small component of its overall business is a foolish indulgence when our state should be pulling together to promote real economic development.

Mr. Beach is executive director of the Coastal Conservation League; contact him at DanaBeach@scccl.org.