COLUMBIA, SC Two conservation groups filed a lawsuit Tuesday over the state’s failure to force the removal of experimental seawalls that they say are keeping rare sea turtles from reaching nesting sites on beaches in Charleston and Beaufort counties.
The suit, filed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, says federally protected loggerhead sea turtles are suffering because the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control illegally approved the walls.
DHEC allowed the plastic seawalls to remain in place, even though the devices were supposed to come down last summer, according to the S.C. Wildlife Federation and the Sierra Club, which filed the suit. In September, the DHEC board overturned a staff decision that ordered property owners at Harbor Island and Isle of Palms to remove the walls, known as “wave dissipation’’ devices.
Unlike seawalls made of concrete or rock, the plastic walls are portable structures that are supposed to protect valuable oceanfront property without further eroding beaches. They contain openings that let sea water get through them, which is supposed to limit beach erosion. They also are touted as easy to remove during sea turtle nesting season. Wave dissipation systems were approved by lawmakers two years ago as an experiment.
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But conservation groups and some property owners say the walls have become impediments to endangered sea turtles because they were never taken down. Turtles can’t reach sand dunes to lay eggs in the summer, environmentalists say.
“Beach armoring, such as with these wave dissipation systems, results in the inability of breeding females to reach their nesting sites above the high tide line,’’ according the S.C. Environmental Law Project, which filed suit on behalf of the Sierra Club and the S..C. Wildlife Federation.
Tuesday’s suit, threatened by conservationists in June, asks a federal judge to require the walls to be removed immediately and to prevent more wave dissipation devices from being installed. It also asks the court to declare the plastic seawalls illegal under the federal Endangered Species Act.
DHEC, the state’s environmental protection agency, declined comment.
The agency’s board is scheduled to discuss the seawall issue again at its meeting Thursday in Columbia. The board could reverse course and order the seawalls to be removed, although there was no indication this week that would happen.
In overturning the DHEC staff’s July order to remove seawalls, some DHEC board members questioned the wisdom of removing the walls when people’s property was vulnerable to damage from the ocean. Now, they have a federal lawsuit to contend with.
The lawsuit says DHEC violated the Endangered Species Act, which protects rare animals from undue harm, by approving the plastic seawalls; failing to tell the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; failing to get a federal permit for the walls; and by preventing ‘endangered species from procreating.’’
Although DHEC declined comment Tuesday, an agency commissioned consulting report said the wave dissipation walls do not “appear to significantly affect sea turtle nesting or other fauna.’’
The report, completed Oct. 31, said most of the areas studied provide poor habitat for nesting. Property owners who installed the experimental walls have investments on one stretch of beach at Harbor Island and three stretches of the Wild Dunes area of Isle of Palms.
Prepared by GEL Engineering, the 135-page study says limited beach erosion has occurred around the walls and the plastic wave walls have obstructed people from walking down the public beach at Isle of Palms and Harbor Island. It says the walls provide some property protection now, but are not long-term solutions.
The Sierra Club-Wildlife Federation suit is the latest chapter in South Carolina’s decades-old struggle over how to regulate oceanfront development in a state with naturally eroding beaches and the regular threat of hurricane damage.
Today, as sea level continues to rise and more coastal property is at risk, the issue has taken on a renewed urgency. Property owners are looking for ways to protect millions of dollars in oceanfront investments -- and state legislators have listened.
In recent years, the Legislature has broken with the state’s policy against new seawalls and allowed a new bulkhead at Debordieu Beach; given developers at Kiawah Island a break that could allow them to build on a narrow sand spit; and approved the use of wave dissipation walls at Isle of Palms and Harbor Island.
That has occurred as sea level has risen and scientific forecasts show it will increase even more by the end of the century. Scientific studies project sea level to rise one to five feet in the Southeast during that time.
The Sierra Club’s Christopher Hall said property owners are fighting in vain to hold back the sea, but he understands why.
“The reality that a financial investment, made on property that was built too close to the coast is slowly going down the drain, must be horrifying,’’ he said.