South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

Sea turtles suffer as seawalls go up, legal notice says
June 17th, 2016

By Sammy Fretwell

COLUMBIA, SC - Rare sea turtles are being blocked from nesting on South Carolina beaches by a new type of seawall that was touted as a way to protect oceanfront buildings from erosion without hurting wildlife, say some coastal landowners and environmental groups.

The S.C. Sierra Club and the S.C. Wildlife Federation sent a notice to federal and state authorities this week threatening to sue if government agencies don’t move to protect sea turtles from the hard plastic seawalls, referred to as wave dissipation devices.

The notice says the government must resolve violations of the federal Endangered Species Act within 60 days or the environmental groups will file suit against the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. The suit would seek to ban future wave dissipation walls and require existing walls to be taken down.

DHEC’s coastal division has allowed the plastic walls on South Carolina beaches at Harbor Island and Isle of Palms as an experiment — but the structures are hurting at least two types of federally protected species that nest in the Palmetto State, according to the legal notice released Friday.

Those species include loggerhead and leatherback sea turtles, which are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act because they are not common and generally are declining in population.

“Beach armoring, such as with these wave dissipation devices, results in the inability of breeding females to reach their nesting sites above the high tide line,’’ according to the S.C. Environmental Law Project, which is representing the two conservation groups.

While hard concrete and rock seawalls erode the beach and make sea turtle nesting more difficult, the experimental plastic structures could be taken down if they interfered with wildlife, boosters say. They contend the walls would not erode the beach because of the way they were designed.

The Legislature approved wave dissipation devices about two years ago at the urging of state Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston, in an attempt to protect seaside hotels and homes from rising seas. Four of the experimental seawalls have been erected, three at Isle of Palms in Charleston County and one at Harbor Island in Beaufort County.

Amy Armstrong, an attorney whose nonprofit legal service is representing the environmental groups, said the wave dissipation walls should be taken down this time of year. Armstrong, who is with the law project, said sea turtles can’t get past the plastic walls when they crawl up on the beach to lay eggs in sand dunes. The nesting season begins in May and lasts into early August.

“Part of the argument for these walls is you can easily remove them,’’ Armstrong said. “So why aren’t they being removed during turtle nesting season?’’

It was not clear Friday whose responsibility it would be to take down the wave dissipation devices. They were installed as part of a pilot program developed by The Citadel and approved by DHEC.

Sea turtle volunteers at Harbor Island, a small resort near Hunting Island State Park, have taken photographs showing turtle tracks leading to a wave dissipation wall. State and federal agencies are investigating a report received Thursday at Harbor Island, DHEC spokeswoman Cassandra Harris said Friday.

“We don’t like these things,’’ said Mark Caldwell, a deputy field supervisor with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Charleston. “We think it is inappropriate for a variety of reasons, one of them being sea turtles.’’

DHEC officials did not comment on the legal notice Friday, but said they have allowed the walls as a result of the Legislature’s action.

Campsen said sea turtles won’t nest on the stretches of beach at Isle of Palms where the walls have been erected, regardless of whether a wave dissipation device is in place. Areas where the walls have been placed already are heavily eroded, which is poor habitat for sea turtles to lay eggs in, Campsen said.

“There is no way a turtle could successfully nest there because they would be nesting on the hard beach sand,’’ Campsen said. “The water at high tide would inundate it and wash the nest away. I know this. I surf by that area all the time.’’

Sen. Paul Campbell, R-Berkeley, said there is no need for a lawsuit.

“I guess somebody can sue because of a sea turtle, but I think it would be a frivolous lawsuit,’’ said Campbell, also a booster of wave dissipation walls. “Unless they have proliferated, there’s not enough (walls) to block the sea turtles. You always have these aggressive lawyers who want to go after somebody and sue somebody.’’

Campsen said he did not know the landscape at Harbor Island as well as Isle of Palms, but doubted the habitat is ideal for sea turtle nesting there, either. Armstrong said Campsen has no proof that sea turtles would not nest on either beach.

Many species of sea turtles, including loggerheads, prefer to lay eggs in sand dunes to better protect young turtles until they hatch. Under the cover of dark, mother turtles will crawl up on the beach, looking for the right spot to bury the eggs.

If an obstruction, such as a building or a seawall is in the way, the turtles will crawl back into the ocean and look for another place to lay eggs. But should they be unable to find one easily, they can lay eggs in spots that are more vulnerable to ocean tides or predators, biologists say.

Two of the four walls approved by DHEC were supposed to have been taken down during the past month, records show. But at least one of them, at Harbor Island, remains standing, Armstrong said.

The wave devices being used on South Carolina beaches do not require permits and extensive review by DHEC because the devices are considered experimental. An independent study of the project is being done and will be presented to the DHEC board in late fall, an agency spokeswoman said.

Matt Hamrick, an attorney representing the developer of the wave system, said the dispute appears to focus more on when and whether to take the walls down, not whether they work.

Concrete and rock seawalls have been banned on the South Carolina coast since the late 1980s, but the Legislature two years ago agreed to allow experimental devices as an alternative to sand bags that erode the beach.

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