South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

Federal judge orders removal of Harbor Island’s ocean barriers
August 14th, 2017

By Maggie Angst

After years of controversy, a federal judge has issued an order for the immediate removal of the ocean barriers on Harbor Island and Isle of Palms.

The experimental erosion-control devices, called a Wave Dissipation System, were installed in 2015 to slow waves and build up sand behind the walls of heavy-duty pipe.

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

Since the installation of the walls, a handful of South Carolina environmental groups have argued that they interfere with the nesting activities of sea turtles and therefore are a violation of the Endangered Species Act.

In July 2016, DHEC ordered that the system be removed in its entirety because of their effect on nesting sea turtles. Yet, the walls were never taken down.

So in December 2016, the S.C. Environmental Law Project, which is representing the S.C. Wildlife Federation and the Sierra Club, filed a lawsuit against DHEC, alleging that the experimental walls were keeping rare sea turtles from reaching nesting sites.

“That’s why we felt it was important to file a case in federal court, because we’re now in our third nesting season, and it was clear we weren’t getting any quick release from DHEC,” said Amelia Thompson, Staff Attorney for the S.C. Environmental Law Project. “(The recent decision) is not just another order because the federal court order differs from the agency decisions that we’ve seen previously.”

In January 2017, DHEC filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. But in July, the S.C. Environmental Law Project filed a motion for preliminary injunction requiring the immediate removal of all the walls during the sea turtle nesting seasons while the case was pending.

On Monday, a federal judge from the U.S. District Court in Charleston denied DHEC’s motion to dismiss the case and granted the motion for a preliminary injunction.

“This is great news for us,” Thompson said. “It’s certainly a precedence-setting opinion that gets to the heart of why we can’t obstruct sea turtle nesting and that’s just the kind of thing the Endangered Species Act is designed to protect against.”

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 walls, according to the S.C. Environmental Law Project.

At least two wall-induced false crawls have been reported in 2017, including one that occurred in June on Harbor Island, according to the environmental group.

Earlier this year, DHEC’s Ocean and Coastal Resource Management staff concluded that the seawalls 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.

Matt Hamrick, attorney for SI Systems LLC., which is owned by the inventor of the Wave Dissipation System, told The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette last month that he disagreed that the walls caused any harm.

“The engineering experts that have evaluated the performance of the WDS, including the independent engineer hired by DHEC at great taxpayer expense, have concluded that the WDS has been successful at addressing erosion and causes no harm,” Hamrick wrote in an email.

As for how long it will take for the walls to be removed, Thompson said she hopes that they come down “pretty quickly.”

“The walls are designed to be taken down within 72 hours, that’s part of the reason they’ve been touted as a good thing because they’re supposed to be taken down relatively easy, so that’s our hope,” she said.

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