South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

Congaree bridge permits delayed
August 11th, 2006

By SAMMY FRETWELL [email protected]

Groups say U.S. 601 project will harm wildlife in park

Plans to replace a 58-year-old bridge near Congaree National Park sparked enough questions Thursday that state regulators delayed issuing permits for the work.

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control agreed not to decide on the permits until next month after conservationists and state highway engineers clashed during a hearing.

Board members urged the S.C. Department of Transportation and conservation groups to seek a compromise. The board had expected to decide on the permits Thursday.

“You guys can work this thing out,” board member Edwin Cooper said. “We could make a decision today, and it would set up one of these long (court) fights ... and everybody would be mad at each other.”

At issue is the DOT’s $37 million plan to replace the Congaree River bridge on U.S. 601 next to South Carolina’s only national park. The project in lower Richland County has sparked an uproar because it also proposes rebuilding a series of causeways to support U.S. 601 through the river’s flood plain.

Conservation groups say causeways prevent water from flowing easily through the flood plain that adjoins Congaree National Park, which hurts wildlife. They want the entire four-mile-long project bridged and existing causeways removed.

The bridge project cuts through a federally targeted area where Congaree National Park eventually will expand. “This is not your average bridge replacement permit,” said Jimmy Chandler, a lawyer representing Friends of Congaree Swamp, Audubon South Carolina and the S. C. Wildlife Federation. “We’ve got a chance here to do a good thing.”

But DOT officials said bridging would send the project’s cost soaring to about $75 million — and the agency doesn’t have the money.

As proposed, about one quarter of the project would be bridged. Three bridges would slice through land approaching the Congaree River, in addition to the bridge across the river. The flood plain bridges would be separated in some spots by causeways.

“Give us the money, we’ll build the bridge,” DOT lawyer Deborah Durden said.

The bridge is wearing out and may eventually be shut down if it is not replaced. Parts of its underside already are falling off, DOT officials said.

“Our purpose is not to save the Congaree Swamp,” Durden said.

Congaree National Park is a 22,000-acre preserve that contains the largest contiguous tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest in the country. It is widely known for the towering trees that grow in the flood plain. The park also is an important area for birds and is home to a variety of mammals, including deer, owls, bobcats, wild boars and otters.

Congress designated the land south of Columbia as a national park about three years ago.

In asking conservation groups and the DOT to negotiate, DHEC board members suggested additional money should be sought to bridge more of the project through the flood plain. They also asked DHEC staff to re-examine plans to build new causeways after questions about the stability and expense surfaced.

John Walsh, the DOT’s deputy highway engineer, said he’s willing to talk with environmental groups, but he stressed the need for permits to build the bridge. The project could start in 2009, agency officials said this week.

The DOT can’t get a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit to fill about eight acres of wetlands until DHEC certifies the plan and issues the permits.

Reach Fretwell at (803) 771-8537.