NORTH CHARLESTON — S.C. environmental regulators on Tuesday issued a needed permit for a $35 million cruise passenger terminal in Charleston, saying allowing the terminal doesn’t really change what is happening on the waterfront of a city that has had a port for centuries.
The Department of Health and Environmental Control’s Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management issued the permit allowing the S.C. State Ports Authority to drive pilings beneath an old riverfront warehouse for the new terminal.
There has been debate over the city’s growing cruise industry for several years and two public hearings on the permit earlier this year drew hundreds of people. The controversy has sparked lawsuits in both state and federal court.
“We all have our personal beliefs and perceptions about what we wish were the case,” DHEC director Catherine Templeton said. “But, at the end of the day, our commitment is to look at what the law requires. And, at the end of the day, five pilings do not allow more ships or bigger ships.”
The port area always has been an industrial and commercial area for centuries and “putting in the five pilings doesn’t permit more,” she added.
However, the permit does incorporate a voluntary agreement between the Ports Authority and City of Charleston limiting the number of cruise stops to 104 a year. Opponents of the expanded cruise industry have criticized that agreement, saying it was only voluntary and has no teeth.
By making it a condition of the permit, state regulators could technically, if the agreement is not upheld, require the Ports Authority to go back in and rip out the foundation for the terminal after it is built.
The authority wants the pilings to support elevators in the new terminal.
The permit also requires the contractors working on the terminal use environmentally sound procedures in building, such as using low-emission vehicles, turning off equipment when it is not being used and requiring those vehicles to use ultra-low sulfur fuel.
The dispute over the cruises has been raging for years. In 2010, Carnival Cruise Lines permanently based its 2,056-passenger liner Fantasy in Charleston, giving the city a year-round cruise industry. Before that the city only had a handful of seasonal cruises.
Opponents say the added tourists, traffic congestion and smoke from the cruise liners are destroying the historic fabric of the city.