By Jay Williams, Jr.
There’s good reason for the cruise terminal controversy. Union Pier may be the worst place to put it.
There must be a balance between residents’ quality of life and the cruise ship tourism that Jonathon B. Tourtellot, a National Geographic Fellow, once called “the strip mine of tourism.”
On April 12, more than 125 citizens attended an Army Corps of Engineers public hearing as part of a process to decide if the South Carolina State Ports Authority (SPA) should be given a permit to build a new terminal at Union Pier. (See many comments on our letters to the editor section on pages 14 and 15.) Col. Matthew Luzzatto, commander of the Army Corps’ Charleston office, stood as he listened to two hours of public comments. Most speakers highlighted the negative impacts from cruise ships and respectfully offered options to reduce them. Before making its decision to approve the permit, approve it with special conditions or deny it, the Corps will review all comments submitted by May 12, 2016.
The Corps previously approved a “maintenance” permit with no public comment, but citizens appealed. In 2013, U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel tossed that permit and chastised the Corps’ review process saying, “The Army Corps of Engineers, unreasonably and unlawfully, restricted its ‘scope of analysis’ to an insignificant fraction of the project that lay within the agency’s jurisdiction.”
Real growth, real issues
The SPA submitted revealing information to the court. Quoting from the ruling, “The Ports Authority has acknowledged that a cruise ship terminal can ‘present special challenges’ in ‘managing automobile and pedestrian traffic,’ ‘protecting the environment,’ ‘and preserving Charleston’s unique character’ and ‘there are still lingering questions about how well the cruise ship business will fit into the context of this diverse, world class city.’” “Evidence provided by the Ports Authority supports the [opponents] claim … that the number of cruise ships and passengers has increased in recent years and the proposed new and larger passenger terminal would likely significantly increase the number and size of cruise ships visiting Charleston and the volume of cruise passengers in the historic Charleston waterfront.”
From 2000 to 2013, the number of Charleston’s cruise ship passengers increased by 547 percent. So with a new 100,000 sq.-ft. terminal featuring an 1800’ pier, the home-ported 2,056-passenger Carnival Ecstasy could be replaced with a 3,450-passenger ship, creating new impacts even under current limits. In that 2013 ruling, the Court, citing SPA data, concluded that simply to service this increased volume of passengers on an average cruise day, “up to 20 tractor trailers, 16 small trucks, 32 busses, 90 taxis and 1600-passenger vehicles would need access to the very confined” terminal area that “lies immediately adjacent to the Charleston Historic District and the Ansonborough neighborhood.”
What about even more ships, traffic and impacts? In January, Cruise Industry News Quarterly wrote, “While Carnival remains the port’s number one customer, there is the potential for another home-ported line, as the city recently completed doubling the size of its airport.” And the new Union Pier cruise terminal would be much larger, able to berth two ships simultaneously.
Last May at Charleston City Council, Jim Newsome, the SPA’s CEO, asserted that Charleston’s cruise business “is not a growth industry,” noting that in 2010, “we had 67 cruise ships.” He didn’t say that Charleston would host 93 port calls in 2015. This year, Charleston will host 100 ships. That sure looks like growth.
That ordinance doesn’t limit anything
We’re now just a few ships short of the SPA’s own voluntary limit of 104 ships per year. No worries, right, because of that much-heralded City Council ordinance passed to address to cruise concerns. But that ordinance didn’t limit anything. It only requires the SPA to notify the city one year in advance when plans to exceed the voluntary limits of 104 cruise ship visits or the 3,500-passenger maximum. So if the promise isn’t kept, there are no consequences.
On the night the ordinance passed, the SPA’s public relations director, Byron Miller, sent an email confirming the ordinance’s irrelevancy: “As you’ll recall, this ordinance does not limit or impact in any way the cruise business in Charleston.”
At last May’s City Council meeting, SPA CEO Jim Newsome, mostly reaffirmed this earlier quotation: “In my view, cruising is a maritime commerce business, not a tourism business,” he said. “It’s more like an airport. Sure they may stay a night or two before or after the cruise, but for us it’s about the maritime commerce.” That night he said, “Most of the cruise passengers … board the Carnival Fantasy to become tourists, but in Nassau and Freeport.”
Carnival cruisers are not coming to Charleston; they’re going through Charleston. So much for those touted economic benefits.
This time, it’s a different process
This time, the Corps must abide by the congressionally mandated Section 106 process to assess all environmental and historic impacts.
So it was confusing to hear Army Corps’ project manager Nat I. Ball’s opening at the hearing when he said that as a terminal was already in Charleston, “We’re focused on the changes that would occur … From what occurs at Union Pier today, we’re looking at that increment of change.”
That sparked a response from Blan Holman, managing attorney at the Charleston office of the Southern Environmental Law Center: “The Corps needs to consider this for what it is — a brand new and much larger cruise terminal in the heart of Charleston’s historic downtown. Calling a $35-million-dollar terminal ‘maintenance’ or treating this project as a nip and tuck takes us back to 2013 when we should be moving forward.”
Besides ship limits and alternate terminal locations, other issues beg for solutions, but the SPA hasn’t offered a single concession on any of them:
Shore power. The Coastal Conservation League’s Katie Zimmerman says that “nitrogen oxides and carbon oxides are not addressed by scrubbers” but that shore power virtually eliminates them, noting that the SPA’s “air quality monitor measures regional impacts, not localized hot spots.” “Additionally,” she said, “tests of scrubbers have shown possible increases in high concentrations of a number of harmful compounds in the water around the ships.
Though shore power will cost $4-5 million, that’s minor compared to the terminal’s $35 million price tag and the federal government has paid much of this cost at other ports.
Parking and traffic. Unbelievably, the SPA is planning for nine acres of surface parking at Union Pier on perhaps the most valuable undeveloped waterfront property in America. And even with a rail line available, the SPA has rebuffed remote parking solutions.
The Corps’ October 21-22 traffic study drew skepticism as it was done so soon after major flooding dampened tourism. The study showed increased cruise day traffic, but questions of validity suggest that it should be repeated this month.
Asymmetrical impacts. Charleston gets no revenue from cruise ships. No berthing fees, no head taxes and no property taxes — every dime goes to the SPA. Yet the city and its citizens bear all the heavy impacts of managing tourists driving in and spewing out from the terminal.
The concerns above help explain why some cities, after being badly damaged by cruise ship tourism like Venice and Hamilton, Bermuda, are moving cruise terminals away from the historic districts and city centers. Although Key West is now trying to limit cruise operations, it’s already too late to preserve what was there.
The vast majority of cruise critics are not seeking to end all cruises; however, noise, soot, traffic, water quality and ship and passenger scale must be regulated as any tourist business. Many citizens are saddened by the visual pollution of colossal modern cruise ships towering over iconic church steeples, shattering the ambiance and patina of this historic city; but, the noise, smells, traffic and pollution make them angry.
The SPA owns the Veterans and Columbus Street terminals, closer to highways and with more space. Given that the SPA considers a cruise terminal to be like an airport and refuses any tourism regulation or compromise on any issue, denying the permit at Union Pier may be only sensible solution.
Voice your opinion: Written comments on the proposed Union Pier cruise terminal must be received by May 12, 2016:
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Attn: Nat Ball
69-A Hagood Ave.
Charleston, S.C. 29403