COLUMBIA, SC Siding with coastal property owners, South Carolina’s environmental protection board refused Thursday to ban experimental seawalls that its own staff said are contributing to beach erosion and threatening rare sea turtles.
The Department of Health and Environmental Control board disregarded staff recommendations to stop allowing the plastic seawalls, after seaside property owners and their attorneys said the devices protect millions of dollars in coastal development.
Thursday’s DHEC board vote allows property owners at four developments on Isle of Palms and Harbor Island to keep the seawalls in place for at least a year.
The board did not address whether it would permit more of the experimental walls, but environmental lawyer Michael Corley said that’s a strong possibility – and he’s concerned because the plastic seawalls erode beaches just like concrete walls.
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Corley, a lawyer with the S.C. Environmental Law Project, said his organization may appeal the board’s decision. The non-profit legal service already has filed two separate legal challenges over the experimental seawalls.
“I understand why the board wants to help these people, but the way they are being helped is not legally or scientifically sound,’’ he said.
Agency board members peppered staff members with questions through Thursday’s hearing, asking whether the walls were having any real effect on beach erosion or endangered sea turtles, as staff members asserted.
DHEC board members questioned whether studies of the seawalls’ success were thorough enough. Board member Chuck Joye of Anderson said he wants more extensive study over the next year, and in the meantime, asked that the devices “remain in place for that period.’’
The seawalls, known as wave dissipation devices, were approved for use by the Legislature about three years ago as an experiment. Touted as a way to protect land without eroding beaches like concrete seawalls, walls ranging in length from 120 feet to 850 feet have been built on the seashore in front of condominium buildings and homes in Charleston and Beaufort counties.
But since being installed, the wave dissipation walls have contributed to erosion, agency staff members told the board. Staffers showed a series of photographs documenting problems with the plastic seawalls.
The walls blocked sand from getting from the ocean to the back part of the beach, according to a staff presentation at Thursday’s board meeting. Enough sand to fill about 75 dump trucks decreased on the beach behind the walls, the presentation said. At the same time, erosion occurred on unprotected property near the plastic walls, according to staff information.
The board also was told about sea turtle tracks leading to the base of the plastic walls, then turning back toward the ocean. State lawmakers approved the walls after boosters said the devices were portable and could be taken down during sea turtle nesting season. But property owners never took the walls down after they were installed.
Despite that, two former DHEC lawyers urged the board to allow the walls to remain in place. Attorneys Jack Smith and Mary Shahid, who now are in private practice and represent coastal landowners, said plastic wave dissipation systems are providing vital protection to valuable seaside property.
Matt Hamrick, who represents a wave dissipation company, disputed the DHEC staff’s conclusions that the walls weren’t working as designed and were threats to sea turtles. Hamrick said a consultant DHEC had used to draw its conclusions said the wave devices were not causing problems on beaches.
”The WDS does not negatively impact turtle nesting,’’ he said. “No one has shown any proof that it did.’’
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