A disputed bridge project through Congaree National Park got the go-ahead from a federal judge this week after years of legal disputes over the $33 million construction job’s impact on the federally protected nature preserve.
U.S. District Judge Margaret Seymour has ruled against environmental groups and park supporters seeking to halt construction. Part of the U.S. 601 project has already been done, but the rest had been stopped while Seymour considered the case.
No one disputed the need for a new bridge to replace a creaking old span across the Congaree River at the national park’s lower end. But the DOT and environmentalists were at odds over the approaches to the river bridge. Environmentalists wanted more of the approach road, U.S. 601, to be converted to bridges to protect the flood plain and wildlife; the DOT said that would be too expensive.
Michael Corley, a lawyer representing environmental groups, said they were disappointed with the ruling, but unsure about an appeal. Park boosters included Friends of Congaree Swamp.
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S.C. Department of Transportation officials said changing the project could drive up costs. They applauded Seymour’s decision this week.
“SCDOT can now complete this project within the original budget, and the public will have four new bridges that meet current design and safety standards to use on this major route,” said state Transportation Secretary Robert St. Onge.
The lawsuit filed challenging the bridge, filed last September, is the second by environmentalists against the project. The first suit resulted in their favor when Seymour ruled in 2008 that state and federal highway agencies had not adequately assessed the environmental impacts of the project. She said more study should be done.
Transportation officials revised their environmental study, which again justified the project. In their second lawsuit, conservationists said the revised study didn’t address the project’s impact any more thoroughly than the first study. They wanted more extensive research before the U.S. 601 project is finished.