South Carolina

Green groups gearing up for Interstate 73 review

The Sun News file photo

Environmentalists are poring over hundreds of pages of documents pertaining to construction of Interstate 73 to determine what impact the proposed road will have, and say they plan on taking advantage of a new public comment period to submit their views.

Nancy Cave, north coast director of the Coastal Conservation League, says she and lawyers from the S.C. Environmental Law Project are examining the documents for any potential negative impact to thousands of acres of wetlands and other technical aspects of the proposal put forth by the S.C. Transportation Department.

The environmentalists’ review may take longer than the 30-day comment period offered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, one of the last steps before the federal agency makes a final determination whether to issue the permit needed to begin construction.

“Several of us are looking at this public notice and additional documents, and if we feel that we need more time because of certain questions that come up, or to really digest what they are saying, we’ll ask for more time,” Cave said.

The Army Corps opened public comment last week that will continue until Aug. 8, but federal officials say they would extend the public comment period to 60 days if asked by state agency officials or members of the public.

“That’s not an uncommon request for large projects, because there’s just so much information to review,” said Travis Hughes, regulatory chief of the Corps’ office in Charleston.

This is the second go-around for state transportation officials to submit mitigation plans to the federal agency for a public comment period, to examine how environmental impacts to the road could be offset by protecting another expanse of property in similar size.

In 2011, state officials eyed the Joiner Bay wetland site and Long Branch stream as a mitigation area, but federal officials sent those plans back to the drawing board in 2012.

The solution proposed by state officials now is to purchase Gunter’s Island to preserve and protect environmental resources there across more than 6,000 acres east of the Little Pee Dee River.

“This is more than just saying it’s a pretty piece of land, and that it all sounds great,” Cave said of their review.

The proposed road would create interstate access directly to Myrtle Beach, and is intended to alleviate heavy traffic congestion along S.C. 501. Federal money has been used to pay for road studies, but the actual construction would be paid for with local funding and tolls collected from users.

After the public comment period, as well as input from state health officials, the Army Corps will issue their findings to determine if the permit should be granted or denied. If denied, state officials can appeal that decision.

Audrey Hudson: 843-444-1765, @AudreyHudson