South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

Listen to science about shoreline protection
March 16th, 2017

The Editorial Board, The Island Packet

Beach erosion is a matter of science, not politics. And bad political decisions will never outfox or overpower the mighty Atlantic Ocean.

It is sad to see the politically appointed board of the state Department of Health and Environmental Control overturn a carefully studied recommendation by its professional staff. The staff recommended removing experimental plastic “wave-dissipation devices” from four locations, including Harbor Island in Beaufort County.

The seawalls were approved by the state legislature about three years ago as an experiment. They were touted as a way to protect land without eroding beaches like concrete seawalls. Slats in the walls are supposed to let seawater and sand wash through, which diminishes erosion threats.

The State newspaper in Columbia reported that the board rejected the staff recommendations after seaside property owners and their attorneys said the devices protect millions of dollars in coastal development. The board vote allows the seawalls to remain in place for at least a year of further study.

But it already has been determined that they don’t work. The staff’s recommendation was straightforward:

“DHEC’s analysis of all available information indicates that the (wave-dissipation device) has not successfully addressed erosional issues at the installation sites, has resulted in negative impacts to the beach, and does not meet the performance criteria of a qualified device as defined by statute. DHEC ... staff has recommended that the (board) not approve the (device) for future use and that the existing structures be required to be removed from the beach following the final agency decision.”

Studies showed a loss of sand volume landward of the plastic seawalls. The scarp line continued to erode. It showed a restriction of sand migrating naturally up the beach.

The devices also are said to cause problems for nesting sea turtles.

The board was shown 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.

Now come legal challenges, which the DHEC board should not bring upon itself.

“The S.C. Environmental Law Project has filed an Endangered Species Act lawsuit in federal district court asking the court to enjoin the walls and order their removal due to their interference with the nesting activities of endangered loggerhead sea turtles,” said its executive director and general counsel, Amy Armstrong. It also planned to challenge the board decision.

South Carolina policy has long been against hard surfaces to armor the oceanfront, for many good reasons. Even if hard surfaces fix one problem, they exacerbate other erosion issues nearby.

The least the state can do in these circumstances is adhere to scientific evidence.

We all feel for property owners battling erosion, but the state must see the bigger picture of the coastline as a whole. The first step is to follow science, not politics.

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