In a lengthy diatribe against environmentalists last week, a state highway commissioner urged lawmakers to limit the ability of conservation groups to challenge construction projects.
“It is time for this nonsense to stop and that individuals and groups who seek to delay construction of much-needed roadway projects, our port and other projects .... be held accountable for their actions,” Transportation Commissioner Mike Wooten told a Senate subcommittee.
Wooten, a development engineer from Myrtle Beach, made his comments Wednesday as a larger debate is unfolding in the Legislature about loosening environmental rules. This year, the Legislature is considering at least a half dozen bills that would protect businesses and make development of the landscape easier.
Anne Peterson Hutto, a lobbyist for the S.C. Coastal Conservation League, said anti-environmental bills are nothing new in the Legislature, but the push by business interests appears more aggressive this year than in recent years. She said many of the bills would hurt the public.
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“It seems like something else comes up every week,” she said. “Every possible way to limit access to the system for citizens and nonprofits is out there. Anywhere they see an opening, they are going after it.”
Dana Beach, the league’s director, said development interests are pushing to weaken environmental laws because the economy is improving. Businesses are seeking to jump-start road and development projects at the expense of the environment, he said.
“When times were slow, around 2008, the pressure to develop subsided,” he said. “Today, with this massive wave of growth, you’ve got this fundamental anger with the legal system” by developers.
Influential business groups, including the S.C. Chamber of Commerce and the S.C. Manufacturers’ Alliance, are keenly interested in legislation they have long contended will stop unnecessary delays in obtaining environmental permits. Attempts to reach spokespeople for each group were unsuccessful last week, but conservationists said lobbyists for the business associations were involved in efforts to change environmental laws. The S.C. Department of Transportation also has weighed in on the debate.
Sens. Greg Hembree, R-Horry, Sean Bennett, R-Dorchester, and Paul Campbell, R-Berkeley, are among lawmakers leading the charge in the Legislature. Hembree, who represents the Myrtle Beach area, said he’s looking for common sense in the law.
“I’m not interested in destroying the environment or helping developers or giving somebody an unfair shake. What I’m really interested in is giving everybody a fair shake,” Hembree said during Wednesday’s hearing on a bill to allow development while environmental permits are under appeal.
Initiatives being pushed to change environmental laws include bills that would:
▪ Allow roads and other construction projects to be built while environmental permits are under appeal. The bill would eliminate what is known as an “automatic stay” within one month of an appeal. Automatic stays stop development until environmental appeals can be heard in court.
▪ Cut regulations protecting wetlands and rivers in the interior sections of coastal counties. The bill now is focused on eliminating western Dorchester County from the state’s tighter coastal management laws, but talks are underway to expand that to other coastal counties.
▪ Eliminate the public’s right to appeal environmental permits to the state Department of Health and Environmental Control board. Appeals would go directly to the court system after agency staffers make decisions on environmental permits.
▪ Let developers on Kiawah Island build on a narrow storm-threatened area known as Capt. Sam’s Spit, before tighter coastal regulations can be enacted. The bill would delay limits on developing close to the ocean. Other parts of the coast, aside from Kiawah, could be affected.
▪ Stop state pollution lawsuits filed by citizens against corporations, accusing them of fouling the air, land and water. The bill would prevent people from suing for enforcement of state environmental laws if South Carolina agencies don’t do the job. The Legislature attempted to take this action several years ago, but the law it passed didn’t stop the public’s ability to sue.
▪ Limit the state’s ability to penalize someone for what are considered “minor” violations of state environmental laws.
In addition to those bills, a Utah waste corporation is working on a plan to reopen South Carolina’s low-level atomic garbage dump to the nation. A bill is expected to be filed this year.
The overriding debate over whether to change environmental rules bubbled up during the hearing last week on the automatic stay bill.
Wooten, whose company has helped develop more than 1,000 projects, said conservation groups such as Beach’s organization have used environmental laws to “blackmail” and intimidate those who are trying to develop property in a responsible way. Wooten made his comments while speaking in favor of changing the state’s automatic stay law.
“Personally, I have a client who was threatened by a representative of the S.C. Coastal Conservation League,” Wooten said, noting that the client, who he did not name, changed his development plan to avoid legal delays.
League officials disputed that, saying negotiations are a routine part of the legal process when developers want to build in ecologically sensitive areas.
Wooten’s remarks followed a March 19 vote by the S.C. Transportation Commission supporting the bill to let development occur before environmental permit appeals are resolved.
The March 19 resolution said the threat of legal challenges “has caused state and local organizations, such as S.C. DOT, to expend millions of dollars, in addition to the requirements to avoid delays and court costs.”
The resolution did not cite any specific delays or how many times environmental challenges have held up road projects. Nor did it cite specific examples of where costs have been driven up by environmental challenges.
But the subcommittee voted 2-1 to send the automatic-stay bill to the full Judiciary Committee. Sens. Hembree and Ross Turner, R-Greenville, voted for the bill. Sen. Thomas McElveen, D-Sumter, voted against the bill.
Conservationists oppose changing the law to eliminate the automatic stay within 30 days of an environmental permit appeal. They argue that it would make environmental appeals useless if a development project is completed before the case is heard.
Wooten said the proposed Charleston harbor deepening and the expansion of the Boeing aircraft plant in North Charleston are examples of blackmail by environmental groups against development.
Conservation groups were heavily involved in negotiations to protect wetlands in exchange for not challenging environmental permits in each of those cases. Those groups included the Conservation League, located in Charleston, and the Southern Environmental Law Center, a Virginia-headquartered legal organization with offices in South Carolina.
Wooten said the deals have cost taxpayers millions of dollars to protect more land than necessary. But Beach called Wooten’s comments misleading.
In fact, negotiations involving the league, Boeing and the state Ports Authority produced agreements to protect ecologically important land while also avoiding delays that would have resulted if the league had taken the projects to court, Beach said. Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, who has been at odds with environmental groups during her time in office, attended a press event to announce the agreement two months ago, praising the ports agreement as an example of cooperation.
“We have accelerated these economic-development projects,” Beach said. He said Wooten’s motive was clear in Wednesday’s hearing.
“To boil down what Mike Wooten was saying today is this: He just frankly doesn’t like the fact that the public has a voice in the approval of environmental permits,” Beach said. “He would not like us to be part of that debate.”