Opinion: Lack of enforcement puts SC's valuable natural resources at risk
July 7th, 2015
BY FRED HOLLAND
Coastal South Carolina is renowned for its natural beauty and wealth of natural resources, including tidal creeks and marshes, non-tidal wetlands, and ocean beaches.
These natural resources provide protection from storms and flooding, habitat for bountiful and diverse wildlife, and safe places to fish, swim and boat. These ecosystems also cleanse our water and air of pollutants.
The quality of life in coastal South Carolina is among the best in the nation. Millions of tourists visit our coast each year, and population growth along our coasts is among the fastest in the nation. Our cultural heritage and natural resources are foundations for a growing tourism-based economy and quality of life.
Vigilant enforcement of environmental laws and regulations and a strong conservation ethic have historically protected our natural resources from development and excessive exploitation.
I am becoming concerned, however, that over the past decade, the vigilance of our permitting and enforcement actions has eroded. Almost every week, I learn of another project that will harm our natural resources and impair the sustainability of our coasts. The classic phrase "a death by a thousand cuts" comes to mind.
It has become clear to me that our current political and regulatory leaders fail to understand the need to conserve our natural resources for the benefit and enjoyment of future generations.
Three recent environmental decisions of particular concern are the beachfront manipulation at Seabrook Island, development of Captain Sams Spit at Kiawah Island, and the exploration for natural gas and oil off our coast.
In combination, these projects suggest our natural resources are being exploited for the benefit of a few individuals. None of these projects will benefit the average citizen.
Failure of state regulatory agencies to resist permits that allow seismic testing for oil and natural gas in our coastal waters -- in the face of overwhelming public opposition -- demonstrates the breadth of the current culture of exploitation and disregard for natural resources.
One S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control board member even went so far as to suggest that opposition of the majority of coastal communities to testing and drilling off our coast was frivolous and based on emotion, not substance. Such statements from a member of the governing body of DHEC leave little hope for the fate of the agency charged with protecting our coastal resources, particularly given the documented realities of seismic testing and offshore drilling.
This exploration will place countless numbers of whales, dolphins and sea turtles at risk.
Even if some new oil and gas reserves are found, it is clear that the majority of our coastal communities would not support drilling and the construction of related infrastructure, which would place our tourism industry and quality of life at risk.
WHO IS ACCOUNTABLE?
It is difficult to say who is responsible for these tragic and irresponsible decisions.
I have worked with many of the staff at DHEC and know them to be dedicated, responsible and ethical environmental professionals. I cannot believe they support decisions that result in harm to our natural resources and well-being.
I suspect staff recommendations were ignored and these decisions came from the top (i.e., the governor, DHEC director and/or the DHEC board). Too many decisions have come out of agencies that appear to be in direct conflict with the current regulations.
I believe the staff at our environmental regulatory agency is being prevented by its appointed leaders from enforcing regulations that protect our natural resources to the fullest extent possible.
As more people move to our coast, the shores of our tidal creeks and marshes have become particularly popular places to build our homes, resorts and recreational facilities. In addition, new industries are continually being located in the headwaters of our rivers where swamps and other forms of wetlands are abundant.
This rapid, sprawling development already has and will continue to change runoff patterns to increase the risk of flooding; alter water quality in tidal creeks and estuaries; impair our salt marshes, creeks and estuaries decreasing the amount of seafood they produce; and harm public health by making shellfish unsafe to eat and water unsafe for swimming.
WHAT TO DO
The best approach for conserving our natural resources and protecting public health and quality of life is planning and managing development using sustainable practices at the county, local, watershed and site scale.
We need to hold our government leaders accountable for their irresponsible policies and decisions. If you value and care about our natural resources, the only ways to protect them are:
-Request, attend and participate in public hearings related to coastal development activities;
-Request that agencies initiate public education efforts to inform the public of the many goods and services provided by our natural ecosystems;
-Call for the resignation of government leaders who do not support sustainable development policies;
-Elect officials who support strong enforcement of environmental regulations and sustainable development;
-Support conservation organizations, such as the Coastal Conservation League and the S.C. Environmental Law Project, that take the legal actions necessary to enforce current environmental regulations and sustainable development; and
-Require our children to be educated about the value and benefits of natural resources and public trust lands.
Fred Holland, of Wadmalaw Island, retired in 2008 with more than 40 years of technical and management experience in environmental sciences, including director of NOAA's Hollings Marine Laboratory and the S.C. Department of Natural Resources' Marine Resources Research Institute.