South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

As Harbor Island seawalls deteriorate, efforts to protect sea turtles intensify
July 31st, 2017

By Maggie Angst

Earlier this nesting season, one ambitious loggerhead sea turtle made her way out of the ocean, around an experimental erosion-control system on the beach of Harbor Island and laid her eggs behind a wall that would stand directly between her hatchlings and the ocean.

Luckily, the horizontal panels of the so-called wave dissipation system were removed. Hopefully when the baby sea turtles hatch, they can make it to the ocean, said Amelia Thompson, a staff attorney at the South Carolina Environmental Law Project.

During the last three nesting seasons, at least 10 female sea turtles have crawled onto the beaches of Harbor Island and Isle of Palms to lay eggs but were blocked and forced to return to the ocean due to the mostly plastic walls.

In response, the S.C. Environmental Law Project, which is representing the S.C. Sierra Club and the Coastal Conservation League, is intensifying its effort to protect the sea turtles and challenging a decision by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control Board to allow the walls to remain in place.

Despite a ban on seawalls and other “hard erosion control devices” under state law, the walls were authorized by DHEC on certain beaches within Isle of Palms and Harbor Island for a one-year study of effectiveness.

The Harbor Island wall stretches about 400 feet in front of four properties.

Two years after the study began, DHEC’s Ocean and Coastal Resource Management staff concluded that the sea walls failed on every relevant metric.

“DHEC-OCRM finds that the (wave dissipation system) has not been successful in addressing an erosional issue, and results in additional impacts to the beach,” their recommendation to the DHEC board stated.

But in June, despite the staff recommendation and after a public comment period, the DHEC Board decided the walls should remain in place.

At least two wall-induced false crawls have been reported in 2017. One occurred in June on Harbor Island and another in July on Isle of Palms.

“There’s viable nesting habitats behind that wall,” Thompson said. “Specifically we’re concerned with the loggerhead sea turtles and how the walls are interfering with their ability to nest, because they’re protected under the endangered species act.”

According to the S.C. Environmental Law Project, each time a would-be nesting sea turtle is blocked by the wall, it amounts to a violation of the Endangered Species Act, because the false crawl harms the health and reproduction of the affected turtle.

“Nesting sea turtles have finite time and energy to deposit all the eggs they need to deposit, and every time there’s a false crawl it’s taking away resources and impeding her nesting success,” said Kate Schaefer, south coast director at the Coastal Conservation League.

Schaefer said the League understands concerns of increasing beachfront erosion, but that the walls are creating more harm than they are helping.

“The reason we’re challenging the board’s decision is that we believe they’re ineffective against erosion and harmful to nesting sea turtles,” Schaefer said. “And in addition, they’re a barrier to public access.”

While The Citadel, which has been responsible for overseeing the study, recently agreed to continue the study, there is no evidence that anyone is actively maintaining the structures, according to the S.C. Environmental Law Project.

Stretches of the wall on Harbor Island appear as almost abandoned ruins with horizontal panels missing and vertical supports damaged, leaning, or missing.

The S.C. Environmental Law Project also filed a separate lawsuit in December 2016 under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

The suit, which is still pending, says federally protected loggerhead sea turtles are suffering because the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control allowed the walls to remain in place, even though the devices were supposed to come down in July 2016.

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