Federal judge orders review of cruise terminal permit

The Carnival Fantasy is docked along Charleston's water front in this file photo. (Photo/Leslie Burden)
The Carnival Fantasy is docked along Charleston's water front in this file photo. (Photo/Leslie Burden)
By Liz Segrist
Published Sept. 12, 2013

A federal judge has ordered the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Charleston to redo its study that permitted a new cruise terminal in downtown Charleston.

U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel on Thursday said the Army Corps didn’t study all of the potential impacts on the surrounding historic neighborhoods and environment when deciding to permit the new cruise terminal. The Army Corps of Engineers awarded a permit last year to construct the $35 million terminal at Union Pier.

In July, the Southern Environmental Law Center filed the lawsuit in federal court against the Army Corps on behalf of the Preservation Society of Charleston and the Coastal Conservation League.

The Army Corps said it is awaiting the judge’s written order, which will determine the appropriate course of action in consultation with the Department of Justice, according to an emailed statement.

“We brought this lawsuit because the Corps of Engineers ignored its legal duty to fully and frankly disclose the impacts of a new cruise terminal and investigate options for reducing harmful impacts,” Blan Holman, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center in Charleston and an attorney for the plaintiffs in the case, said in a statement.

“Today’s ruling allows for a renewed look at how a cruise terminal could minimize harmful pollution and moderate impacts on Charleston’s economically vital historic district,” he said.

The terminal and the cruise industry’s expansion to Charleston met some resistance from community groups and environmentalists who cited increased pollution, tourists and traffic congestion as potential negative impacts on Charleston’s historic downtown. Proponents touted its potential positive economic impact on the city, access to offshore vacations for nearby residents and the relatively small number of cruise ships making visits to Charleston.

“Historic Charleston Foundation applauds Judge Richard Gergel for his ruling to send the permit back to the corps for a more complete review of the proposed cruise terminal project and its potential negative effects to the environment and the city’s historic district,” according to a statement from the Historic Charleston Foundation.

The Department of Health and Environmental Control issued the permit for the cruise terminal in December, allowing the ports authority to install five pilings into the northern end of Union Pier, the location of the new cruise terminal.

The pilings will be used to support three elevators and two escalators. The permit also allows the ports authority to modify Building 322, a warehouse that will become the terminal.

“We will await the Judge’s formal ruling and the Corps of Engineers response,” Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said in a statement. “In any event, we are confident that the permit to drive five additional pilings will be approved as it is justified. If the further analysis is required, we are confident that the permit will be supported.”

The permit also included a special condition that operations for the passenger terminal follow the voluntary guidelines agreed to by the city of Charleston and the ports authority.

According to the guidelines, cruise ship calls will not be more than 104 per year; the port will host one ship at a time at the terminal; and each cruise ship’s size will hold between 1,900 and 3,500 passengers, similar in size to cruise ships that have called on Charleston.

The permit also calls for the ports authority to notify DHEC of any changes to the voluntary agreement, and those notifications must be made at least one year before the changes take effect.

“The case is about balance, and finding the ways that work for the community of Charleston,” Holman said in his statement. “This project will reshape the peninsula along the Cooper River for decades so people in Charleston want to see it done right.  And the best way to do it right is to do it legally — and to do it in the broad daylight of full public review.”

Reach Liz Segrist at 843-849-3119.

Previous coverage
DHEC staff asks board to deny cruise permit review

Groups ask for review of cruise permit

Cruise permit receives mixed reaction

S.C. State Ports Authority intervenes in cruise lawsuit

Lowcountry symposium tackles cruise issues

Judge sends cruise lawsuit to S.C.

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