An experimental type of sea wall being studied along parts of South Carolina’s coast does not have to be removed for now, a state environmental board has ruled.
The Department of Health and Environmental Control’s (DHEC) board on Thursday overruled its own staff and unanimously voted to allow the “wave dissipation devices” erected at erosion-heavy beaches for at least another few months. Board members said the WDS walls located on Isle of Palms and Harbor Island could stay in place until a pilot study into their effectiveness is analyzed this fall.
In July, DHEC staff told the Citadel professor leading the two-year study to remove the walls once field research finished at the end of the month. The letter came after several environmental groups revealed evidence that the WDS walls were preventing endangered sea turtles from laying eggs along the shore. If true, that could violate federal laws against harming the turtle’s nesting habitat.
The Citadel has been studying the WDS as a way to slow down beach erosion. Unlike traditional seawalls, which are now banned under state beachfront laws, the devices have cracks to allow water and sand through. The project’s sponsors hope the design can blunt the erosive power of the waves without scouring beach sand, as traditional walls do. The Citadel finished its fieldwork on the study this summer and Professor Tim Mays is working to submit the final report to DHEC next month.
Attorneys representing the WDS system’s designer, as well as the homes and condominiums located behind the walls, argued nesting season is over until next year. They want the walls to at least stay in place until the board considers The Citadel report’s findings, noting the study is being privately funded.
Matt Hamrick, an attorney for WDS inventor Darren Nettles, said the walls are being deployed in areas where sandbag used would block turtle nests anyway. “We all know sandbags have a lot of problems,” he told the board. “These huge sandbags just form a hard wall. They’re essentially like a seawall. The wave dissipation system, on the other hand, is permeable and flexible. And it absorbs the wave energy instead of just deflecting it.”
But DHEC attorneys said photos the agency received from environmental groups, most notably the Sierra Club and the SC Environmental Law Project (SCELP), appear to show “false crawls” tracks made by sea turtles. False crawls are a term used to describe when a turtle returns to the ocean after being unable to lay its eggs ashore. Office of Coastal Resource Management counsel Bradley Churdar said South Carolina risks a lawsuit for violating the Endangered Species Act if turtles are indeed being blocked.
“The significance of that is the exposure to civil penalties which could be in the thousands of dollars per violation, if it’s a case that’s brought by the (U.S.) Department of the Interior,” he told board members. Private groups such as SCELP could also sue, he said.
But board member Clarence Batts appeared to sum up the board’s feelings when he speculated the WDS should at least stay in place until the board has a chance to review The Citadel’s study next month. “The concern on the other end appears to be the turtles and their being able to nest,” he said. “And from now to December, that is no longer an issue.”
SCELP Executive Director Amy Armstrong said her organization was not allowed to participate in Thursday’s hearing, even though it was frequently mentioned by DHEC staff and pro-WDS attorneys. “Obviously we think that was unfair to be denied being a part of that process since we were mentioned in that hearing,” she told South Carolina Radio Network.
Armstrong also questioned why board members are allowing the wall now that field research is finished. “The study’s done,” she said. “Why would you allow this wall that’s illegal under state law and had to get a special exception for the study?”