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Chapter 3 | Paradise and paradox

Early mornings in May the sky and water seem to merge as the swamp warms and awakens near Low Falls Landing.
Early mornings in May the sky and water seem to merge as the swamp warms and awakens near Low Falls Landing. Photo by Gerry Melendez

You might say Jim Clyburn is a force of nature going up against the defenders of nature.

His proposed bridge would cross the Upper Santee Swamp, traveling parallel to a railroad trestle.

Swamp sunflowers bloom bright yellow. From the many hues of spring leaves, a great blue heron flies up the Santee River. In the Upper Santee Swamp, more great blue herons cross the water than do boats on a sunny afternoon.

The quiet men fishing in the shade compete with anhingas, ospreys and cormorants. On slender tree branches, the cormorants spread dark glossy wings to dry after diving for food. Look closely at water's edge and anhingas are swimming, their snaky heads weaving.

Farther up, into Sparkleberry Swamp, there's just the water and the sawgrass and the woods, the fish and the gators and the silence.

"The thing that bugs me is we don't recognize this jewel as a national resource," says Jane Lareau, land-use director with the S.C. Coastal Conservation League.

"We go to Georgia for the Okefenokee; we go to Florida for the Everglades. Why aren't we going to South Carolina for Sparkleberry?"

That's not all that's bugging environmentalists. In 2006, the League, Audubon South Carolina and the S.C. Wildlife Federation sued the S.C. Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration.

The lawsuit contends, "The proposed connector would degrade and destroy significant natural resources in one of the largest remaining wildlife habitats in South Carolina while serving no demonstrated transportation purpose."

J. Blanding Holman says, "You don't pave paradise and put up a parking lot." Holman, the environmental groups' attorney, is with the Chapel Hill office of the Southern Environmental Law Center's.

"If the point is an attractive place where people want to come, and part of the value is remoteness, you defeat it by having a road.

"There's a paradox," he adds, citing his interpretation of Clyburn’s stance: "We'll build a bridge, and it will lead to economic development, but we won't hurt the area because the bridge won't have that much traffic."

The lawsuit does have another agenda. It is as much about challenging the practices of DOT as opposing a bridge. The lawsuit argues DOT's required environmental-impact study was deficient because it did not properly address the Connector's impact or alternatives to it.

The lawsuit also says DOT ignored its own conclusion that use would be low and reduce Orangeburg to Sumter travel time by just minutes.

David Farren, another attorney with the center, calls the Connector "a pork-barrel project looking for a purpose."The bridge construction will ruin habitat; the bridge's existence will pollute water with runoff and trash, interfere with animals' travel patterns and rob the swamp of its silence, say the SELC attorneys.

And for what? asks the lawsuit, pointing to the DOT forecast of limited use. Of course, all this means those suing struggle with a paradox, too: A bridge will harm the environment, although it won't be used.

"First and foremost, we come at this from a fiscal point of view,' says Norm Brunswig, executive director of Audubon South Carolina. "We think it's a huge waste of money to build a bridge with no measurable, predictable benefit to anybody.

"Starting from that point, you can't justify any loss of habitat."

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Environmentalists and the media cannot resist the word "pristine" when describing the area the bridge will cross, the Upper Santee Swamp.

Little is pristine, as in pure, anywhere anymore, which is their point.

However, Lake Marion is man-made. The woods are second-growth, cut for timber in the early 1900s. The Santee River is dammed, ending fish migration. From 1977 to 2000, a hazardous-waste landfill last owned by Safety-Kleen operated near Pinewood, just 1,200 feet from the lake's shore.

And 20 miles from Rimini, the pilots of Shaw Air Force Base use the Poinsett Electronic Combat Range, 12,520 acres along S.C. 261, for bombing practice.

No, the swamp is not untouched. But it has had 64 years to recover from the dramatic rearrangement of the landscape as Lake Marion, Lake Moultrie and their dams were created to provide jobs to hungry South Carolinians and, ultimately, electricity to those without. Even a pause at a paved landing reveals beauty and value: geographic, social, spiritual.

The environmentalists are sure this is an area worth fighting for. They are sure, too, that few such areas remain in South Carolina. And they are sure Clyburn is not a guy to make angry.

But he is angry.

That brings on anxiety because Clyburn is labeled "a friend of the environment," regularly ranking high on annual scorecards of the League of Conservation Voters, the political voice of the environmental and conservation community.

Early in the battle, calls came from environmentalists in other states, asking what the heck was going on? Why make Clyburn mad? Nail-biting increases as Clyburn's political power grows.

Behind the scenes, activists say Clyburn was put-out from the get-go that his pro-environment stances didn't earn him a pass on the proposed Connector.

Many activists are outraged, or hurt, that Clyburn says their opposition is racist, that they want to keep black people poor and helpless. It's an accusation that unnerves them. They want to be the good guys, not the bad guys.

Says Lareau: "He's lost his mind on the subject."