Cruise Ships in Charleston

Over the years, the South Carolina State Ports Authority (SPA) has increased cruise ship operations and applied for permits to build a new passenger terminal vastly larger than the current one. This has a direct impact on Charleston and because of this, the Conservation League is working for local and state regulations of cruise operations. This includes but is not limited to addressing high levels of harmful pollutants and reducing congestion associated with the growing number of cars and trucks that navigate towards the cruise terminal in the heart of historic downtown Charleston.

Charleston has an opportunity to adopt safeguards coupled with monitoring and enforcement, particularly because the cruise ship industry has a long record of non-compliance: oil slicks reported by passengers; toxic chemical dumping; deliberate falsification of discharge records and installation of equipment to bypass pollution controls.

Cruise ships generate significant pollutants, toxins, and carcinogens. They idle for ten hours during every port visit, emitting plumes of smoke with high levels of harmful air pollutants responsible for asthma, heart disease, and cancer.

Ships can lawfully discharge treated sewage within three miles of shore — but the treatment technology is outdated. And get this: they can discharge untreated sewage and garbage ground to one-inch pieces when they are three miles from shore, which impacts our water quality.

Nuisance and Violation of Laws

In June 2011, after years of outreach and collaborative effort to get regulations in place, the Conservation League, the Preservation Society, Historic Ansonborough Neighborhood Association, and Charlestowne Neighborhood Association, represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, filed suit against Carnival Corporation for violating zoning ordinances, permitting requirements, and creating a nuisance. After two and a half years of petitions, motions, and even a specially-appointed judge to assess the case, in January 2014, the plaintiffs were told by the SC Supreme Court that our groups had no standing to bring nuisance claims against Carnival Corporation. While disappointing, this was a technical ruling that did not reach the merits of the case. Because it viewed the negative impacts of cruise operations as being widespread, the Court held that nuisance suits must be brought by individual property owners.

Public Review for Cruise Terminal Impacts

Meanwhile, in July 2012, the Conservation League and the Preservation Society of Charleston, again represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, brought suit in federal court to restore required public review of the proposed $35 million cruise terminal slated for construction next to Charleston’s nationally protected historic landmark district. In a major win, a U.S. District Court found that a federal Army Corps of Engineers permit issued for the proposed new terminal was unlawful. The SPA and the Corps then filed appeals. However, in January 2014, those parties dismissed their appeals in apparent recognition that the appeals would be meritless. Now the Corps must re-evaluate the SPA’s resubmitted request for a permit, looking at impacts of the entire project, not just the pilings to support construction.

The interested parties, including the Conservation League, are currently consulting with the appropriate state and federal agencies as the process of Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act is fulfilled. The National Environmental Policy Act must also be followed. In April 2016, the Army Corps hosted an information workshop and public hearing for this permit application. The event had a large turnout, and 33 speakers commented about negative impacts and suggested solutions, including Charleston City Councilmember Seekings. Only a handful of speakers claimed there would be little to no impacts. As a follow-up, the Corps received approximately 100 comment letters, including one from Mayor Tecklenburg, identifying negative impacts and potential methods of minimization and avoidance. The consulting parties met most recently in November 2016, but we expect meetings to resume in the near future.

Challenging the State Permit

In 2012, the SPA also applied for its state permit to install pilings in critical area for the new cruise terminal. This permit request to the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control’s Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management (SC DHEC-OCRM or OCRM), unlike the federal version, did go on public notice. Despite the hundreds of concerned citizens and specific evidence submitted to the agency on the negative impacts occurring in the city from increased cruise operations, the agency approved the permit. What’s more is that this was approved without undertaking legally required analysis of alternative locations and steps to mitigate impacts.

A coalition of groups, including the Conservation League, represented by the South Carolina Environmental Law Project, submitted a request to the board of SC DHEC-OCRM to review the staff’s approval of the permit. In January 2013, that request was denied. Therefore, in February 2013, we filed a request in the state’s Administrative Law Court (ALC) for a hearing to challenge the permit. In March 2014, the Administrative Law Judge issued several rulings that limit our ability to gather evidence in the case and properly prepare for trial. In April 2014, the Judge ruled we did not have standing. We appealed to the South Carolina Court of Appeals, and attorneys from both sides presented oral arguments on February 15, 2017. In October of that year, the Court of Appeals ruled that we did not have standing to challenge the permits. In January 2018, we asked the state Supreme Court to review and reverse this decision, and oral arguments were heard on June 11, 2019. We expect a decision before the end of the year.

Looking Ahead

Local and state governments across the country and worldwide have adopted more protective standards to safeguard their communities. Why should Charleston be any different? Until such change is made, the Conservation League will continue to promote comprehensive recommendations to reduce and mitigate cruise ship impacts. These include:

  • A cap of 104 ship visits annually, and no ship larger than 3,500 passenger capacity. The SPA asserts that this is the maximum number of ships the cruise market will support. This number should be codified.
  • An enforceable agreement between the city and the cruise lines stating that no waste will be discharged closer than twelve miles from land. The cruise industry’s trade association has made this promise verbally. It should be written and verifiable.
  • Shoreside power at the new terminal. Other major cruise destinations around the country include electric plug-ins, allowing ships to turn off their engines. Charleston should have the same.
  • Shuttle service and offsite parking combined with a parking garage, to eliminate the need to devote 9 acres of prime waterfront property to a surface parking lot.

Staff Contact

Riley Egger · [email protected] · 843.725.8035

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