CHS | The SPA can’t be left unleashed by Jay Williams Jr.
|Is the Sunshine drawing rave reviews? Not from Charleston residents.
This isn’t about the heat; this Sunshine is the third in line of ever-larger Carnival ships to be home-ported here. For one citizen “sucked into the traffic undertow” on the East Side, the 3,000-passenger Sunshine represents a chilling reminder of the negative, largely unregulated repercussions of the SC State Ports Authority’s (SPA) cruise terminal operations in Charleston.
For years, the SPA has run roughshod over residents’ concerns about cruise ship pollution, noise, traffic, congestion, and illegal dumping and environmental impacts. Bringing in a newer, bigger ship that instantly increases traffic, tourists, and congestion makes everything worse—and there’s no end in sight. These ships will get bigger.
Watch the Supreme Court argument
Can neighboring residents rein in the SPA and reduce the harmful effects of the cruise terminal? The South Carolina Supreme Court will hear oral argument on this decisive case at 10 a.m., June 11thin Columbia. If you care about your rights, you need to be there. The significance of this decision goes well beyond the cruise terminal issue.
For eight years the SPA has relentlessly pursued the construction of a new cruise terminal declaring that the existing terminal is inadequate and doesn’t meet Homeland Security requirements. But to build on the harbor, it needs both federal and state permits.
The SPA applied for and received its federal permit. But six years ago, after opponents filed suit to oppose it, United States District Court Judge Richard Gergel tossed the SPA’s federal permit to build a $35 million terminal at Union Pier and blasted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for failing to adequately review the project’s effects as mandated by Congress. “I think you did an end run,” he told the Army Corps lawyers. “You gave this permit the bum’s rush.
“You haven’t done what the law requires you to do by reducing a 108,000 square-foot project to 41-square feet of pilings,” he said. The federal judge also referenced evidence contained in a 1,200-page filing that the new terminal is being designed for larger ships than now call here, and that the new terminal could more than triple the number of cruise passengers visiting the city.
The Army Corps is expected to render its revised decision later this year.
South Carolina has a parallel permitting role. The SPA got a state permit for a new cruise terminal from DHEC, the SC Department of Health and Environmental Control. Once again, that permit was challenged– this time the result was different.
Administrative Law Judge Ralph King Anderson III ruled that thecitizens’ group plaintiffs which included environmental, historic preservation, and neighborhood groups, “lacked standing” and couldn’t challenge DHEC’s approval of the permits. The groups appealed, but the SC Court of Appeals sided with Judge Anderson, forcing them to make a final appeal to the SC Supreme Court.
Blan Holman, managing attorney in the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Charleston office who represents some of the citizens’ groups said, “On June 11th, the Supreme Court will hold oral argument on whether neighbors have any standing to challenge the lawfulness of permits issued for a new cruise terminal that would be located right next door to them. Lower courts held that neighbors do not have standing because the injuries are felt by too many people.
“We contend that injury to more than one person does not render a permit unchallengeable. If anything it should require stricter review. The hearing is open to the public so that those interested can see the wheels of justice in motion. The court won’t rule at the hearing, but will issue an order some number of months down the road.”
Many observers suggest that there are broader citizens’ rights issues involved.
Attorney Holman agrees, “The issue before the Supreme Court goes to the right of families and property holders across South Carolina to contest unlawful pollution permits. If a person who physically experiences soot pollution first-hand at her home has no standing, then it is hard to imagine who would ever have standing. That should be a concern statewide since it would limit citizens’ rights to contest permits for toxic waste facilities, sewage plants, nuclear sites — you name it.”
The cruise industry powerhouse
In May, 2015, SPA CEO James Newsome told city council that the “one sector that has not grown at all is the cruise sector” citing similar passenger counts of 186,000 for both 2011 and 2015. “It’s not a growth industry, we’ve said that from the start.” He added, “The market for cruise ships in this port is not that big, it will never be that big.” Later in that speech, Newsome said that, “In 2010 … we had 67 cruise ships.” What he didn’t say was that Charleston would host 93 ships that year—an increase of almost 30-percent.
Perhaps CEO Newsome didn’t realize that worldwide cruise industry growth was exploding. In 1990, four million cruisers set sail, but last year 27.2 million cruised the oceans, and 35-percent of them sail into the Caribbean. Here in Charleston, we reached the SPA’s “voluntary limit” of 104 ships annually for the third year in a row.
Cruise passenger growth distresses most downtown residents. Although the SPA voluntarily agreed to a limit of 104 ships annually with a maximum of 3,500 passengers per ship, those limits aren’t binding. A much-heralded city ordinance during Mayor Riley’s reign did not codify those limits as many had thought; it merely obligates the SPA notify the city a year in advance if it wants to exceed those “limits.”
As they wait for their permits, the SPA has lived up to its “voluntary limits.” But because these limits are not binding, you have to wonder what will happen if the SPA gets the permits necessary to build a new terminal.
Since 2011, citizens opposing the Union Pier site have proposed an elementary solution: Locate the new cruise terminal away from historic downtown. Potential sites include the underused 110-acre Veterans Terminal at the old Navy base near highways and able to handle cruise traffic without creating congestion.
But the SPA has repulsed every suggestion to mitigate the negative impacts on Charleston, including moving it, adding shore power, adding a passenger fee to aid the city, developing off-site parking to reduce cruise traffic congestion, and returning some of the world’s most valuable waterfront parking lot to the city for taxable housing and development.
Carnival is no prize either. Since 2017, Carnival ships have been on probation by the federal government after the company admitted to “record falsification and numerous instances of prohibited discharge,” including multiple violations in Charleston waters.
The SPA can’t be left unleashed. Residents must have legal rights to protect their health and property, and any cruise terminal permit must include key restrictions to protect our city. This Supreme Court hearing could not be more important.
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CHS | A blog commentary about Charleston. Please share with friends. Comments are always welcome – please click on the reply button. Comments, if published, will be posted anonymously.
This column appears as “The Advocate” on page 2 of The Charleston Mercury.