A federal judge ruled Monday that temporary experimental seawalls must be taken down at Isle of Palms and Harbor Island because they can prevent endangered sea turtles from laying their eggs.
District Judge David Norton issued the order ahead of proceedings between environmental groups and the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC). The groups had sued over a Wave Dissipation System (WDS) being tested along the two beaches with severe erosion. The system was piloted as a potential way to protect condos and beachhouses instead of sandbags. But the SC Sierra Club and SC Wildlife Foundation said the devices violate the state’s ban on seawalls and can create “false crawls” by sea turtles which must return to the ocean after the wall prevents them from reaching dunes to lay their eggs.
Norton said the false crawls likely constituted a “take” under federal law which prohibits harassment or harm to endangered species. His Monday order requires DHEC remove the walls while the case is being considered and during turtle nesting season next summer.
“As we’re able to proceed and have discovery and the merits of the case decided, the walls will have to be removed right now,” South Carolina Environmental Law Project attorney Amelia Thompson said.
The Citadel tested the WDS devices at locations on the Isle of Palms in Charleston County and Harbor Island in Beaufort County. Last year, DHEC staff concluded the study had been unsuccessful and was not able to slow severe erosion on those beaches — and may have even been making it worse. But the company which makes the devices and residents of buildings protected by them appealed to the board, arguing DHEC had not allowed researchers to move the system up and down the beach as conditions changed — which they say was its intended use. The DHEC board ultimately went against its own staff in March and ordered another year of study.
Norton wrote DHEC’s actions prevented the endangered animals from nesting.