CHARLESTON, S.C. (CN) – South Carolina environmentalists intent on blocking development of a $600 million cargo container terminal at the former Charleston Navy Base have sued the Federal Highway Administration for access to documents it hopes will bolster its case.
At issue are 11 pages of documents the Highway Administration has withheld from the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League, without explanation.
The Highway Administration was one of several federal and state agencies that reviewed by the South Carolina State Ports Authority’s proposal for the new terminal. The new facility, to be opened in 2014, will more than double the capacity of the Port of Charleston by adding space for an additional 1.3 million TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units, the size of a standard shipping container) to pass through the port each year.
The S.C. Coastal Conservation League sued in Federal Court here in November 2007, contending that permits issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the terminal and a new access road connecting it to Interstate 26 understated the environmental and traffic-related impacts of the project.
Preliminary work on the new three-berth terminal has been under way for more than a year.
The Coastal Conservation League wants to review the Highway Administration documents that were included in the permit’s environmental impact state in the context of a separate evaluation the federal agency did on the widening or further expansion of Interstate 26 near Charleston.
The new lawsuit claims that the Highway Administration is violating the Freedom of Information Act.
Nancy Vinson, program director for the 4,000-member organization, said in an interview that the organization is “very concerned about the serious air pollution and traffic congestion that could result from this project, and want, at the very least, to see that these issues are mitigated appropriately.”
Vinson said the league believes that analysis of the new terminal’s impact on the surrounding community was done without being considered in the context of a widening of Interstate 26 near Charleston, already under way.
“Our concern is that the impact of the new terminal was not considered in light of the increased traffic through the area that the widening will foster,” she said.
The League hopes the federal court will set aside the permits and issue an order halting terminal development on the site until a “new, complete analysis that looks in earnest at the costs and benefits of, and best alternatives for, meeting the region’s container shipping needs in a way that protects human health and the region’s natural resources,” Vinson said.
But with more than 90% of the world’s goods moving by ship today, and with the number of containers moving through the Port of Charleston projected to grow significantly, with or without a new terminal, the port authority has tried to get ahead of the environmental curve, said Bernard S. Groseclose Jr., the Ports Authority’s president and CEO.
“Some people would suggest that we’re some kind of aliens,” Groseclose said, “that somehow, we don’t breathe the air around here or drink the same water.”
Charleston has been identified as meeting national ambient air-quality standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a designation that Groseclose said “means that the air quality here has not, in fact diminished.” But he said the issue of air-quality protection should also be seen as a challenge.
Late last year the Ports Authority and the state Department of Health and Environmental Control agreed to a plan to place a long-term air quality monitor near the new terminal. The monitor will measure pollution before and after the terminal opens, said Scott Reynolds, director of the state’s division of air quality programs. It will gauge the impact of the port expansion on air quality in the surrounding Charleston and North Charleston neighborhoods.
The port contributed $180,000 to cover the cost of the monitor.
“We’ve all heard of communities, particularly port communities on the West Coast, that have gotten in such a state that legislative action and the implementation of strict local rules were necessary,” Groseclose said. “We as a port and as residents of this community don’t want to be in the same spot.”
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