South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

Seawalls & Sea Turtles

Last summer, beachwalkers on Isle of Palms and Harbor Island raised concerns about experimental plastic seawalls that were obstructing the beach and interfering with sea turtle nesting. Mother sea turtles were crawling up to the seawalls, known as Wave Dissipation Systems, and then retreating back to the ocean, unable to reach nesting habitat. SCELP promptly sent out a notice letter to federal and state agencies alerting them that these walls are a violation of the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”) on behalf of the Sierra Club and the S.C. Wildlife Federation (“SCWF”). The ESA prohibits interfering with nesting and reproduction of protected species, including endangered sea turtles that return every year to lay eggs on South Carolina’s beaches.

In response to reported false crawls, SCELP sent a letter in June to South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (“DHEC”). At first, DHEC staff responded swiftly to protect sea turtles by asking the experimental seawall study participants to take them down by July 28, 2016. However, that victory was short-lived. Fourteen separate appeals, called requests for final review in the administrative process, were filed with the DHEC Board. The environmental groups filed a motion to intervene, which was denied. However, the DHEC Board did decide to hear the case.

The board held a hearing on September 8, 2016, but only heard from DHEC staff and proponents of the seawalls. DHEC staff stood by their recommendation to take the walls down. Blair Williams, a manager in the wetlands permitting section of DHEC, stated “We believe it was the right decision, and we still believe it's the right decision.” Brad Churdar, DHEC’s attorney, supported the staff decision and added that false crawls do constitute a take within the meaning of the ESA. However, the DHEC Board disregarded the staff recommendation and ordered the seawalls to remain in place on October 10, 2016. On behalf of Sierra Club and SCWF, we filed an appeal of that decision before the Administrative Law Court on November 9th.

On December 6th, we filed an ESA complaint against DHEC, claiming that experimental plastic seawalls are harming endangered wildlife in violation of the ESA.

Since then, the DHEC Board overruled its staff again on another issue related to the experimental seawalls: whether these walls are effective emergency structures (they are not) that should be more widely authorized in place of sandbags and other emergency measures (they should not). The study of Wave Dissipation Systems was conducted by the Citadel under the supervision of DHEC staff. One of the purported advantages to these experimental seawalls is that they are supposed to be easy to take down during nesting season. However, that was not done during nesting season in either 2015 or 2016 and is again precluded under DHEC Board's most recent authorization for the walls to stay up.

Only one month after the DHEC Board ignored its staff's conclusion that experimental plastic seawalls on South Carolina beaches do not work and should be removed, the seawalls are largely in a state of ruin or even abandonment, with several broken parts littering and polluting the surrounding environs. On July 21, we asked the federal judge for a preliminary injunction requiring immediate removal of the walls, based on turtle nesting attempts that have been blocked in 2017, for a third consecutive nesting season.

Case Update:

On August 11, 2017, the Charleston federal district court granted our motion for a preliminary injunction to take down the plastic seawalls at Isle of Palms and Harbor Island, while rejecting DHEC's motion to dismiss. In order to receive the preliminary injunction, we had to show, among other elements, a likelihood of success on the merits. Thus, our victory on this motion bodes well for the case overall.

Subsequently, DHEC ordered removal of the horizontal panels but not the vertical pylons, arguing that it was impossible to complete a full removal in the two weeks between the order and the end of nesting season. (The injunction order was issued on August 14, and the commonly accepted end of nesting season is August 31). The court's order came too late to allow for complete removal during the 2017 nesting season, but requires complete removal in advance of the 2018 season.  

Five property owners sought to intervene in the federal case just before our injunction hearing.  The district court did not allow them to participate in the hearing, and we later filed written oppositions to their intervention motions.

Seawalls & Sea Turtles

Tracks from a "false crawl" on Isle of Palm last summer