Once again, a group of obstructionists who like to call themselves environmentalists is trying to steal opportunities away from South Carolina. The Coastal Conservation League and Southern Environmental Law Center filed a suit in federal court a week before Christmas to halt the construction of Interstate 73, highlighting their continued disregard for the public good.
These groups say the environmental impact of I-73 is too high. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
The federal government requires that any new highway be constructed along the least environmentally impactful route. Fifteen state and federal agencies have spent 16 years and $21 million to comply with this requirement by developing more than 2,000 alternative routes using a corridor analyst tool. This complex mapping system layered 52 levels of mapping data from 21 sources, taking into account the disruption of the environment, local landmarks, homes, farms and historic property. During the development process, 12,000 surveys were distributed, more than 4,000 people attended public meetings and there were more than 100 days of public comment periods (during the last of which, more than 10,000 comments in support of I-73 were received).
Only after this extensive process did officials designate this route as the least environmentally impactful, filling 324.3 acres of wetlands. To compensate for filling in 324.3 acres of wetlands, the 4,618.5-acre Gunter’s Island along the Pee Dee River will be placed into a historic trust to be preserved into perpetuity. For every acre of wetland impacted by the construction of I-73, 14 acres will be preserved.
Why does a group that claims to represent environmental interests object to a project that protects nearly 5,000 acres of land — or 14 acres for every one acre it impacts? It is clear to me that they prioritized their misguided interests over meaningful environmental protection. This is evident in their proposed alternative: the Grand Strand Expressway. Their methodology yielded a route that would fill 679.6 acres of wetlands (as opposed to the suggested 324) and disrupt 12 historic sites, the Little Pee Dee Heritage Reserve, two cemeteries, seven churches and one fire department.
It is laughable that the Coastal Conservation League claims to care about saving taxpayers money when it has repeatedly pursued legal action that would not only prevent jobs and opportunity from coming to our area but costs taxpayers millions of dollars. Where was its concern for taxpayer money when it held up the S.C. 31 extension, costing Horry County taxpayers $20 million, or demanded bear crossings be built across International Drive, which would have cost Horry County taxpayers millions of dollars? Now, its Grand Strand Expressway would cost Dillon County $7 million in annual income by eliminating access to commercial establishments that are currently easily accessible from I-95.
Worst of all, these environmental groups seem committed to preventing economic growth in the communities that need it the most. I-73 will travel from the coast across I-95 to I-74 in North Carolina. This route will cross Dillion, Marion, and Marlboro counties — three of the most distressed communities in the state. In these three counties, unemployment is almost double the national average, income is far below norms and the population is actually shrinking. I-73 promises to have transformative effects for these counties, creating 29,000 jobs, $43 million in local tax revenue, $86 million in state tax revenue and a total economic impact of $1.98 million. Infrastructure brings jobs. Just ask the 1,200 employees at Harbor Freight, the largest employer in Dillon County — situated adjacent to the newly built Dillon Inland Port.
These groups have deemed the entire public good — safety, quality of life and the economy — unimportant in comparison to their hypocritical special interests. They believe it is their duty to put up roadblocks to progress. I went to Congress to provide hope and opportunity to impoverished areas of South Carolina, which is exactly what I-73 will accomplish. The Coastal Conservation League and Southern Environmental Law Center need to be exposed for what they really are: obstructionists who have been robbing South Carolinians of opportunities.
Rep. Rice represents South Carolina’s 7th Congressional District; contact him at email@example.com.