South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

Speakers show support for proposed cargo rail yard, with some caveats
May 24th, 2016

By David Wren

Residents of neighborhoods adjacent to a proposed rail yard at the former Navy Base in North Charleston said Tuesday they recognize the project’s benefits and support its development, but want to make sure their concerns are addressed before it gets final approval.

The project “appears to be a rare economic upswing for the area,” Gerard Mikell — president of the Union Heights Community Council, which represents the mostly low-income neighborhoods near the project — said during a public hearing, adding: “We hope they will be good neighbors.”

Tuesday’s hearing, held by the Army Corps of Engineers, was designed to get input on the agency’s draft report that examines the benefits and disadvantages of the $130 million rail yard to be built by Palmetto Railways, a division of the state’s Commerce Department.

Many of the speakers expressed concerns about increased noise and traffic, environmental damage, destruction of affordable housing, demolition of historic buildings and a gym at Sterett Hall, and whether jobs related to the facility will be made available to residents.

“I would like to see a real effort as it relates to balance — development and protecting these communities,” said state Rep. David Mack, D-North Charleston. Mack urged the Army Corps to form a community advisory board to address the neighborhoods’ concerns.

“We have to protect these communities that have been here for generations,” Mack said.

Mikell summed up many speakers’ comments, saying: “We welcome all clean, quiet, unobtrusive industries to our neighborhood.”

The project would let trains from CSX Corp. and Norfolk Southern railroads access a new cargo yard where containerized imports and exports would be loaded and unloaded. Officially known as the Navy Base Intermodal Facility, it would serve an adjacent shipping terminal being built at the former base by the State Ports Authority.

While the Army Corps expects there will be mostly minor, short-term impacts to most residents, there will be major long-term benefits to the local and regional economy, according to a draft copy of the agency’s Environmental Impact Statement for the project.

Palmetto Railways estimates the rail facility will employ 120 people and the new terminal will, at build-out, handle 1.1 million cargo containers of merchandise each year. Jim Newsome, president and CEO of the ports authority, said the number of cargo containers moved by rail at the Port of Charleston has more than doubled since 2009.

The draft impact study is meant to identify likely impacts the project will have on residents, wildlife and the environment. A final study would have to be completed before the Army Corps can make a decision on permitting the project. Among the draft study’s findings:

More than 100 homes, most of them rentals, and other structures would have to be demolished. Owners will be compensated under federal guidelines and renters will have their moving expenses paid and receive other assistance for up to 42 months,

Traffic impacts along U.S. Interstates 26 and 526 will be negligible, although there will be moderate adverse impacts to area roads with rail crossings because of the increase in frequency and number of trains.

The proposal would cut through the Old Hospital District, one of three national historic districts on the former base, and would require demolition of five historic buildings.

Some speakers Tuesday called for the historic structures to be saved.

Robert Besal, a retired rear admiral with the Navy, said the proposed rail route “will bisect the hospital district ... resulting in the diminution of value on one side or the other of those historic buildings.” Besal urged the Army Corps to look for alternatives.

Jeff McWhorter, president and CEO of Palmetto Railways, has said one of the state’s main goals is to minimize and mitigate the impacts on nearby neighborhoods. The rail line plans to use quieter, cleaner electric cranes, automated gate systems that will reduce truck congestion and high mast lights that will point downward to keep light from spilling off the site. And it plans to connect the neighborhood with Riverfront Park on a new overpass at Cosgrove Avenue that will include a bike and pedestrian path.

The rail lines and cargo transfer yard are scheduled for completion by the end of 2018, a year or so before construction of the first phase of the SPA’s Navy base terminal should be completed. The Navy base terminal is a separate $762 million project.

The Palmetto Railways plan, located on about half of the railroad’s 240-acre tract at the former base, is seen as a key element of the SPA’s Navy base initiative and a way to minimize truck traffic because cargo won’t have to leave the terminal to be placed on or off trains.

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