South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

DHEC board spurns staff, allows use of controversial seawalls
March 9th, 2017

By Sammy Fretwell

Siding with coastal property owners, South Carolina’s environmental protection board refused Thursday to ban experimental seawalls that its own staff said are contributing to beach erosion and threatening rare sea turtles.

The Department of Health and Environmental Control board rejected staff recommendations to stop allowing the plastic seawalls, after seaside property owners and their attorneys said the devices protect millions of dollars in coastal development.

Thursday’s DHEC board vote allows property owners at four developments on Isle of Palms and Harbor Island to keep the seawalls in place for at least a year.

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The board did not address whether it would permit more of the experimental walls, but environmental lawyer Michael Corley said that’s a strong possibility – and he’s concerned because the plastic seawalls erode beaches just like concrete walls.

Corley, a lawyer with the non-profit S.C. Environmental Law Project, said his organization may appeal the board’s decision. The non-profit legal service already has filed two separate legal challenges.

“I understand why the board wants to help these people, but the way they are being helped is not legally or scientifically sound,’’ he said.

Critics maintain that the plastic devices are part of a losing battle to protect property as the earth’s climate changes and sea levels rise. But wall supporters sent DHEC 115 comment letters urging the structures not be taken down -- and that appeared to carry more weight with the board than the 365 letters backing the staff’s recommendation.

During the more than three hour meeting, agency board members peppered staff with questions, asking whether the walls were having any real effect on beach erosion or endangered sea turtles, as staff asserted. Board member Chuck Joye of Anderson said he wants more extensive study over the next year, and in the meantime, he asked that the devices “remain in place for that period.’’

The seawalls, known as wave dissipation devices, were approved by the Legislature about three years ago as an experiment. Touted as a way to protect land without eroding beaches like concrete seawalls, plastic walls ranging in length from 120 feet to 850 feet have been built on the seashore in four coastal areas. Slats in the walls are supposed to let seawater and sand wash through, which diminishes erosion threats.

But since being installed, the wave dissipation walls have contributed to erosion and caused problems for sea turtles, agency staff members told the board. The walls blocked sand from getting from the ocean to the back part of the beach, according to a staff presentation. Enough sand to fill about 75 dump trucks decreased on the beach behind the walls, the presentation said. At the same time, erosion occurred on unprotected property near the plastic walls, staffers said.

The board also was told about sea turtle tracks leading to the base of the plastic walls, then turning back toward the ocean. Loggerhead sea turtles are protected under the Endangered Species Act. State lawmakers approved the walls after boosters said the devices were portable and could be taken down during sea turtle nesting season. But property owners never took the walls down after they were installed.

Matt Hamrick, who represents a wave dissipation company, disputed the DHEC staff’s conclusions that the walls weren’t working as designed and were threats to sea turtles. Hamrick said a consultant DHEC had used to draw its conclusions said the wave devices were not causing problems on beaches.

”The WDS does not negatively impact turtle nesting,’’ he said. “No one has shown any proof that it did.’’

Developments with the plastic wave devices are the Ocean Club, Seascape Villas and Beachwood East on Isle of Palms, and landowners on Harbor Island between Beaufort and Hunting Island State Park.

Former DHEC lawyers Jack Smith and Mary Shahid, who now are in private practice and represent coastal landowners, said plastic wave dissipation systems are providing vital protection to valuable seaside property. Shahid said public money for beach widening projects is hard to get, making experimental devices like the plastic seawalls more important as extreme weather threatens seaside homes.

“We know that we’re seeing king tides with more frequency than we’ve ever seen them in the past. We know that hurricanes can be more intense and more frequent,’’ she said.

“We don’t have a big pot of money with money going into it constantly that communities can pull from and put sand on the beach. And we need this innovative technology.’’

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