COLUMBIA, SC The state’s environmental protection agency took steps Thursday to ban experimental plastic seawalls that once were touted as a way to protect oceanfront property without eroding the South Carolina coast.
After hearing evidence that the walls are a threat to wildlife and public beach access, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control board agreed to seek public comment on whether to end the seawall experiment.
Agency staff members want to prohibit the walls, known as wave dissipation systems, that have been erected on two South Carolina beaches. The board would decide the matter after the 60-day comment period and a public hearing.
At Thursday’s board meeting, agency staff members said plastic seawalls aren’t doing much to protect property, but they are preventing sand from naturally building up behind the structures. At the same time, the walls have eroded next door properties that do not have plastic seawalls, and they are blocking people from walking down the seashore, according to the staff’s recommendation.
The seawalls prevent “the natural accretion of sand on the shoreline during calm conditions,’’ according to a recommendation in the DHEC board’s agenda packet. Staff members said the wave dissipation walls present “ a potential harm associated with continued nesting attempts of sea turtles.’’
Thursday’s action follows a federal lawsuit this week by environmentalists, who said the wave dissipation walls are blocking sea turtles from reaching nesting sites. The report DHEC staff presented Thursday said “sea turtles bumped into’’ the plastic walls and returned to the ocean without laying eggs.
DHEC staff members ordered the plastic seawalls removed at Harbor Island and Isle of Palms last summer, but the agency’s board overruled staff in the fall and allowed the devices to remain. Board members expressed concern that people’s oceanfront property, valued at millions of dollars, could be hurt by rising seas.
On Thursday, the board agreed to hear from the public after staff members outlined the results of an-house investigation, which some board members said was impressive. Board chairman Allen Amsler said he understands private property concerns, but it’s hard to battle the sea.
“I feel bad for the property owners,’’ Amsler said. “Obviously, this wouldn’t be a very good future investment. What is the option? (There) doesn’t seem to be a really good option to fight Mother Nature.’’
South Carolina has banned new concrete seawalls since the late 1980s because they speed up beach erosion. But the plastic walls, approved as an experiment by the Legislature two years ago, were pitched as a less damaging way to protect homes that jut out onto beaches on parts of the state’s 200-mile long coast.
The issue of whether to continue allowing the plastic walls is the latest chapter in South Carolina’s decades-old struggle over how to regulate oceanfront development. As the climate changes and sea levels continue to rise, the state’s dilemma is becoming more pronounced. Most of the state’s beaches are eroding and many lost sand during Hurricane Matthew in October.
Developed by researchers at The Citadel, wave dissipation devices have been installed in the past two years on one stretch of beach at Harbor Island and three stretches in the Wild Dunes area of Isle of Palms. The walls are hundreds of feet long, and in some spots, extend well out onto what is left of the beaches.
Unlike seawalls made of concrete, the plastic walls are portable, temporary structures that can be taken down during sea turtle nesting season. They contain openings that let sea water and some sand get through them, which is supposed to limit beach erosion and help beaches build up behind them.
Photographs presented at Thursday’s meeting showed an array of problems DHEC found in how the systems worked.
State Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston, defended the Legislature’s decision two years ago to authorize using the wave dissipation walls, despite DHEC’s critical report. A key supporter of the devices, he said they helped blunt the impact of Hurricane Matthew on some beach houses at Isle of Palms. He acknowledged that homes with the wave walls on Harbor Island suffered damage during the hurricane.
“This thing may end up being something that is not going to work,’’ he said. “The main point I’ve made is to try stuff, as opposed to locking in 1980s technology.
“Where would we be if we stuck with 1980s computer technology?’’
Amy Armstrong, an attorney whose organization is suing to take down the seawalls, said the board’s decision to hold a public comment period is encouraging. But she emphasized that the board could still vote to keep the walls legal. Armstrong said the S.C. Sierra Club and the S.C. Wildlife Federation are unlikely to drop their lawsuit.
“Despite great progress at today’s meeting, we are still far from the walls coming down,’’ Armstrong said. “That is the ultimate goal.’’
Property owners at Isle of Palms and Harbor Island have fought vigorously to keep the plastic walls standing, hiring high-powered former DHEC lawyers to help argue their cases. One former DHEC lawyer, Mary Shahid, said some of the homes have sold for more than $3 million. More than $18 million in property is at risk, she told the DHEC board at a meeting this past fall.
The Sierra Club and the Wildlife Federation sued this week in federal court, alleging that DHEC had violated the U.S. Endangered Species Act by allowing the plastic walls on South Carolina beaches. Loggerhead turtles, the most common types of sea turtles along the state’s coast, are classified as threatened species and are protected under the Endangered Species Act.
Tuesday’s suit asked a federal judge to require the walls to be removed immediately and to prevent more wave dissipation devices from being installed. It also asked the court to declare the plastic seawalls illegal under the federal Endangered Species Act.
A recent DHEC-commissioned consulting report said limited beach erosion has occurred around the walls and the plastic wave walls have obstructed people from walking down the public beach at Isle of Palms and Harbor Island. It says the walls provide some property protection now, but are not long-term solutions.
DHEC echoed the concerns about beach access, noting that the agency has “received complaints from members of the public regarding their inability to walk past the ... structures at high tide.’’