South Carolina environmental regulators have ordered the removal of several temporary experimental seawalls along the coast after complaints they harmed sea turtle nesting.
The Department of Health and Environmental Control’s (DHEC) order affects the Wave Dissipation System (WDS) that is currently located at several spots on the Isle of Palms in Charleston County and at Harbor Island in Beaufort County. A Citadel professor is set to finish a two-year study of the system as a potential environmentally-friendly alternative to concrete seawalls or sandbags in areas where the beach is eroding close to buildings. DHEC told Professor Tim Mays in a letter released Monday that the devices must be moved once the study ends on July 28.
“(DHEC) has consulted with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources regarding potential impact from continued nesting attempts by these turtle species,” the agency’s regulatory director Rhetta DiNovo wrote. “We will continue to gather additional information to further assess these concerns. Because of these concerns, the removal of the device by the end of the study period is necessary.”
DHEC consulted DNR officials after the conservation group South Carolina Environmental Law Project threatened legal action over the walls’ presence, saying the walls prevented endangered loggerhead sea turtles from laying their eggs on the dunes. The legal nonprofit revealed photographs that showed turtles’ tracks leading up to the walls, before turning around and heading back into the ocean.
“The problem is you’re interfering with an endangered species’ ability to reproduce,” the group’s executive director Amy Armstrong told South Carolina Radio Network. She said interfering with the nesting path of a loggerhead could violate the federal Endangered Species Act.
State legislators commissioned the WDS system pilot project in 2014 to study if the devices created by a Mount Pleasant entrepreneur could blunt the force ofof the ocean’s waves without further eroding beaches as permanent seawalls do. Professor Mays’ final report is due on August 28. DHEC’s board will then make the final decision on whether to allow the WDS system as an exception under South Carolina’s ban on new seawalls.
Supporters of the new system say it is still a better alternative than the sandbags property owners would likely end up using. Property owners on Harbour Island also told the Beaufort Gazette that the land behind the walls is unsuitable for turtle nests. DNR’s own response to DHEC also noted the tracks themselves did not necessarily mean the turtle was negatively affected.