By Matt Tomsic
Published July 2, 2012
The Army Corps of Engineers mislabeled the construction of a new cruise terminal at Union Pier as a maintenance project, bypassing public review for the project and issuing a permit for pilings needed to build the terminal, a lawsuit filed today argues.
The Southern Environmental Law Center filed the lawsuit in federal court on behalf of the Preservation Society of Charleston and the Coastal Conservation League. The Army Corps of Engineers is the only defendant named in the lawsuit.
Blan Holman, an attorney with the law center, said the lawsuit challenges an April permit issued by the Army Corps to the S.C. State Ports Authority for the new cruise terminal, which is estimated to cost roughly $35 million. The Army Corps issued the permit under its nationwide permitting rules, classifying the project as a maintenance project that won’t affect the environment or historic preservation, Holman said.
The permit covers new pilings that are needed for foundational support.
The classification allowed the corps to issue the permit without public notice and public hearings. The lawsuit argues the project is not a maintenance project and should go through a public review and public notification process.
“Issuing a maintenance permit to do work to convert a defunct cargo warehouse is a problem,” Holman said. “The point is to bring this above-board.”
A spokeswoman for the Army Corps of Engineers said the corps has not received the filing as of Monday afternoon and couldn’t comment.
Allison Skipper, a spokeswoman for the S.C. State Ports Authority, said, in general, the port anticipated more litigation and decided to set aside roughly $1 million under the “various” category for the terminal construction/improvements section of the capital budget, which totals nearly $147 million. Skipper said the capital budget doesn't tie the port's hands, and it could spend more money on the cruise terminal if it's legally allowed to.
“We will continue progress and spending on the cruise terminal as we are able to legally," Skipper said, adding the ports authority is waiting on a state permit.
Evan Thompson, executive director of the Preservation Society of Charleston, said the groups want to have a public discussion that looks at alternative locations, limits on the frequency and scale of the cruise industry and mitigation.
“What we're hopeful for and what we expect is that there will be a public process that involves consultation with local, state and preservation officials,” Thompson said. “It needs to go through that fair, transparent and rational process that we know is a requirement under the law.”
The path to the lawsuit began earlier this year, when the groups asked the Army Corps to notify them of work on any permit for the cruise terminal at Union Pier.
The Ocean & Coastal Resource Management office issued a public notice for its permit for the pilings, but the Army Corps of Engineers wasn’t included on the notice, which is usually done through a joint application, said Katie Zimmerman, a spokeswoman for the Coastal Conservation League.
“We looked at it and said, ‘Where’s the Army Corp part of this?’” Zimmerman said.
The Southern Environmental Law Center filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Army Corps, received its requested documents and wrote the corps, asking it to withdraw the maintenance permit and go through public consultation procedures.
The Army Corps didn’t respond, and the groups decided to file a lawsuit.