Seawalls & Sea Turtles
This 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.
The DHEC Board will soon be hearing from staff on another issue related to the experimental seawalls: whether these walls are effective emergency structures that should be more widely authorized in place of sandbags and other emergency measures. The study of Wave Dissipation Systems has been 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. In its final report to DHEC, the Citadel recommended removing horizontal panels during nesting season. Failure to implement this annual device modification during the study puts into question the study design and validity of any conclusions.
Tracks from a "false crawl" on Isle of Palm last summer