A federal judge has ordered the removal of seawalls on two stretches of South Carolina’s coast to protect rare turtles that are having difficulty nesting when they run into the plastic structures.
Monday’s ruling by U.S. District Judge David Norton is a victory for conservation groups that fought a state decision to allow the experimental plastic walls at Harbor Island in Beaufort County and the Isle of Palms in Charleston County. Monday’s decision requires the walls to come down pending a federal court case that has not yet been resolved.
In dispute are a series of seawalls approved by the Legislature several years ago.
The experimental walls, developed through research at The Citadel, are supposed to protect valuable oceanfront hotels, homes and condominium buildings without eroding beaches or hurting sea turtles that nest on beaches. Unlike traditional concrete or rock seawalls, the Harbor Island and Isle of Palms walls are made of plastic with slats in them and are supposed to be easy to remove.
But the walls were not taken down during sea turtle nesting season. Evidence suggests they are hurting sea turtles by blocking the reptiles’ access to nesting sites – as well as contributing to beach erosion, environmentalists contend.
“This is a big win for us,” said Amelia Thompson, an attorney with the S.C. Environmental Law Project in Pawleys Island.
It was not clear when the seawalls would have to be removed. The order says they must “remain removed” during sea turtle nesting season. The nesting season begins in May and extends into August. A spokesman for the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control said the agency is “carefully reviewing’’ the judge’s order.
Beach erosion is a major issue as sea level rises. Homes, businesses and other structures built too close to the beach are vulnerable to damage from the ocean. Seawalls help protect property. At Harbor Island and Wild Dunes on the Isle of Palms, property owners are battling erosion and say the walls help protect their investments.
The judge’s order, however, says the walls appear to be hurting sea turtles, which is illegal under the federal Endangered Species Act. The judge said the Sierra Club and the S.C. Wildlife Federation, which filed suit to force the removal of the walls, appear to have strong enough arguments to win the case when it gets to trial.
“ The court finds that the plaintiffs are likely to succeed on the merits of their ESA take claim,’’ Monday’s order said. A take is a technical word that refers to harassment, harm or death that could come to animals protected under the Endangered Species Act. Loggerhead sea turtles, the primary sea turtles nesting on South Carolina beaches, are protected under the law.
Monday’s order takes DHEC to task for its decision to allow the seawalls. Department staff members argued that the walls should be removed, following an initial experimental period, after finding the structures were affecting sea turtle nesting and contributing to beach erosion.
But the DHEC board late last year overruled the agency’s staff and allowed the walls to remain in place. Board members said they wanted to protect the interests of oceanfront property owners.
Without DHEC’s decision to allow the walls, sea turtles would not have been affected, the court said.
“DHEC staff scientists have noted numerous occasions of the sea turtles attempting to nest on sections of the beach and being blocked by sea walls,,’’ the court order said. “DHEC has records of failed nesting attempts.’’