South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

Isle of Palms seawalls must come down because of turtle nesting, judge rules
August 14th, 2017

By Prentiss Findlay

A federal judge has ruled the experimental seawalls on the Isle of Palms and Beaufort County's Harbor Island must be removed because they interfere with turtle nesting.

U.S. District Court Judge David Norton made his decision in a ruling issued Monday that cited "false crawls," or unsuccessful attempts by turtles to lay eggs.

"If these sea walls remain, endangered sea turtles will continue to false crawl," Norton wrote in his decision condemning the barriers.

South Carolina is home to loggerhead, Kemp's Ridley, green and leatherback sea turtles, which are considered either endangered or threatened. The nesting season is from May to October.

"It's an exciting precedent-setting opinion," said attorney Amelia Thompson of the South Carolina Environmental Law Project.

Norton's decision requiring the plastic sea walls be taken down remains in effect while a suit brought by environmental groups against the state over the walls, also known as a "wave dissipation systems," is decided. If the state wins, the sea walls could go back up.

The South Carolina Wildlife Federation and the Sierra Club filed suit against the state Department of Health and Environmental Control because it said the sea walls violated the Endangered Species Act. The walls could force sea turtles to dig nests in less than optimal areas inundated by the tide or deposit eggs in the ocean where hatchlings have a slim chance of survival, wildlife experts said.

DHEC asked that the suit be dismissed, arguing the sea walls were properly permitted and managed so as not to harm turtle nesting.

Norton concluded that there was sufficient evidence the sea walls created a "take" of turtles as defined in the Endangered Species Act.

DHEC spokesman Adrianna Bradley said in response only that "the department is carefully reviewing the court order at this time."

Researchers at The Citadel developed the plastic sea wall which was installed at the erosion-plagued north end of IOP in Wild Dunes. The wall provides specific protection for ocean facing property at Sea Scape Villas which is listed as an intervenor in the suit. An attorney for the condos had no comment.

Norton heard oral arguments in the case on Friday before his decision was filed Monday.

The wave dissipation system was not effective for erosion control yet caused "false crawls," said Steve Gilbert, a biologist for the SC Wildlife Federation. He added that no permits for the experimental system were sought under the Endangered Species Act.

"The judge’s ruling to require their removal during turtle nesting season is a welcome relief to this situation," Gilbert said. "This order is a critical step towards good science and law on the protection of sea turtles."

The wave dissipation systems were installed after the General Assembly allowed them as an exception to the state ban on sea walls because they were considered a research project. They were installed in 2015 and The Citadel studied the effectiveness of the systems under DHEC supervision.

The DHEC staff reported the experimental sea walls didn't work as intended but the DHEC board allowed the walls to stay, which resulted in the environmental groups filing suit.

“I think that the DHEC staff report reflected that these structures do not work, and we have supported the DHEC staff recommendations throughout this process," said Chris Hall of the SC Sierra Club.

"The DHEC Board blocked the sound decision-making of staff, which is how we ended up with these illegal sea walls continuing to block sea turtle nesting for a third season," Hall added. "This order is a critical step towards good science and law on the protection of sea turtles."

A DHEC spokesman and an agency attorney involved in the case did not respond to requests for comment.

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