SC Supreme Court Reverses and Remands Union Pier Cruise Ship Terminal Case
Posted: February 19, 2020
For immediate release
Ruling from the state’s highest court a significant victory for the rights of citizens to challenge permitting decisions that affects their quality of life.
The South Carolina Supreme Court reversed a lower court’s decision that denied citizens the ability to challenge a permit authorizing the construction of a new cruise ship terminal at Union Pier in Charleston.
The case involved whether community groups have a legal right, or “standing,” to challenge the permit issued by the Department of Health of Environmental Control (DHEC) that authorized the State Ports Authority to construct the terminal in the heart of Charleston’s historic downtown.
The lower court decisions denied standing, finding that the groups were not “affected persons” with no legal rights to have their day in court over the new terminal. But today’s ruling from the Supreme Court sends the lawsuit back to the lower court.
The Justices ruled that members of the organizations challenging the DHEC permit established that they are “affected persons” as required by law in order to request review of the permit in the Administrative Law Court (ALC). Specifically, the Supreme Court noted that the groups filed affidavits from their members stating that they are forced indoors because of breathing problems caused by cruise ships utilizing the existing facility – a problem that would increase with a closer, significantly expanded facility. The members would also experience “breathing problems and other adverse health effects; increases in hazardous diesel soot; and increases in noise, traffic, and water pollution.” The Court ruled that if “nearby property owners who have made individualized assertions of real, anticipated harm cannot satisfy the . . . ‘affected person’ status, it does not appear that anyone in this state could qualify to seek review of permits for the Terminal expansion project.”
The Court also order the Administrative Law Court to establish a reasonable schedule for investigating the case and conducting discovery. The Court found that the State Ports Authority “fabricated procedural arguments” in an attempt to prevent the groups from conducting discovery and ruled that the ALC effectively authorized expanded discovery in the first instance.
Finally, the Supreme Court reversed the ALC’s award of sanctions against the groups for seeking a statutory interpretation, finding that no legal basis existed for such an award.
The South Carolina Environmental Law Project (SCELP), a Georgetown-based law firm, challenged the permit on behalf of the Preservation Society of Charleston, Historic Charleston Foundation, Historic Ansonborough Neighborhood Association, South Carolina Coastal Conservation League, Charlestowne Neighborhood Association, Charleston Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation and Charleston Communities for Cruise Control.
“This case is a resounding victory for citizens and groups throughout South Carolina who seek to protect their communities from environmental degradation authorized by a DHEC permitting decision. This decision ensures that all citizens have a right to their day in court,” said SCELP Executive Director Amy Armstrong.
In the lawsuit, the community groups contend that the construction of the terminal would lead to a host of environmental and social impacts created by the increased presence of docked cruise ship. This includes increased airshed emissions, traffic volumes, traffic noise, health implications and depressed property values.
The case will now head back to the Administrative Law Court, which is now required to set a reasonable schedule for discovery. At the conclusion of the discovery process, the ALC will conduct a contested case hearing to determine whether DHEC erroneously issued the challenged permit.
Read more about the case here.
Amy Armstrong, Esquire
South Carolina Environmental Law Project
The South Carolina Environmental Law Project protects the natural environment of South Carolina by providing legal services and advice to environmental organizations and concerned citizens and by improving the state’s system of environmental regulation.