South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

Conservation groups sue over experimental seawalls along parts of eroding SC coast
December 7th, 2016

By Matt Long

Two environmental groups have sued South Carolina’s environmental agency over an experimental type of plastic seawall being tested on two barrier island beaches. But the lawsuit comes as the agency’s own staff is expected to recommend their removal.

The South Carolina Wildlife Federation and the state’s Sierra Club chapter filed the federal lawsuit Tuesday against the state Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC), claiming the walls prevent endangered loggerhead sea turtles from reaching sand dunes where they would lay their eggs.

“It’s interfering with their ability to nest,” said staff attorney Amelia Thompson of the SC Environmental Law Project, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of the two conservation groups. Thompson said the federal Endangered Species Act forbids acts that “harm” protected animals (known as “takes” under the law) and she maintains the temporary walls meet the criteria. “Because the nesting isn’t happening.”

The Wave Dissipation System (WDS) is part of an experiment by The Citadel to determine if the relatively new invention by a Mount Pleasant business could offer a solution to beach erosion. The devices use pipes rather than solid walls, with the idea that water could flow through them while still preventing sand from washing out to sea. Testing of the walls have been underway for nearly two years at four sites at the Isle of Palms in Charleston County and Harbor Island in Beaufort County. A 2014 legislative proviso granted the program an exemption from South Carolina’s ban on seawall construction.

After the SC Environmental Law Project raised concerns about the walls this spring, DHEC agency staff ordered the Citadel professor leading the study to remove them once the experiment finished in July. However, property owners wanted the agency to at least wait until the results were announced. The DHEC board overrode the staff in September, allowing the devices to remain in place.

The property owners and WDS patent holder SI Systems, LLC argue the walls are only used in front of existing structures as substitutes for sandbags they say would prevent turtles from nesting along those developed dunes anyway. Turtle nesting season is in the spring.

But it could be a moot point. Agency staff plan to present the study’s findings at their board’s meeting Thursday and plan to recommend the walls’ removal. “Staff concludes that the WDS has not been successful in addressing an erosional issue and results in negative impacts to the beach,” the report that will be presented Thursday states. “Staff is therefore recommending that this technology, methodology or structure not be approved for future or continued use at these pilot locations or additional locations.”

DHEC’s board will meet at 9:30 a.m. Thursday. The study is listed among the last items on their agenda.

The lawsuit also asks a judge court to declare the WDS system illegal under the federal Endangered Species Act.

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