Balancing Cruise Ship Growth & Charleston Charm

The Carnival cruise ship towers over ten stories tall for almost a fifth of a mile along the historic waterfront.


Neighbors next to a proposed new cruise terminal are awaiting a ruling from the South Carolina Supreme Court on whether they can challenge a state permit authorizing the massive project in an already congested area of historic downtown Charleston. 

SELC represents the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League and the Preservation Society of Charleston in this effort to give neighbors a voice in a major project that will affect their homes and community.

A state administrative judge said neighbors have no right to be heard, but SELC has challenged that stance.

At issue is the South Carolina State Ports Authority’s plans for a new $35 million cruise terminal in Charleston. The terminal would be home base for giant cruise ships with up 5,000 crew and passengers aboard.  Fifteen stories tall, the ships tower over – and emit diesel soot next to – Charleston’s National Historic Landmark district, perhaps the nation’s best preserved colonial city. The homebasing operation means that thousands of cars as well as buses and 18-wheelers would go to and from the terminal each day a ship is in port. 

SELC is helping neighbors get a voice in the process to advocate options for reducing air pollution through shore power, remote parking options to reduce traffic, and alternative terminal locations like Veterans Terminal, an underused state facility on the Cooper River.

Seeking a Balance

SELC is leading the fight – not against the cruise industry – but by seeking a balance that allows cruise tourism while protecting the health and character of the historic downtown.

That’s more crucial than ever because a bigger facility could host bigger cruise ships than ever based in Charleston, and potentially more than one ship at a time. That would mean more air pollution, and thousands more cars, trucks, buses and tractor-trailers on colonial-era streets already gridlocked on cruise days.

In fact, in 2011, the National Trust for Historic Preservation put the city’s National Historic Landmark district on an endangered “watch list,” meaning this federally protected area is threatened by the ongoing stress from the cruise industry.

Urging Limits and Alternatives

SELC has spearheaded an effort to adopt meaningful limits on the size of ships and the number of operations each year. The SPA has said it can live with those standards, yet refuses to make them binding.

SELC is also pressing consideration of “shore power” at a new terminal, which would allow cruise ships in port to connect to electricity rather than idling their polluting diesel engines. Other cruise destinations require shore power to cut down on the soot from smokestacks, and SELC is pushing to get Charleston that same consideration.

While we await the state court’s decision on whether neighbors can challenge a state permit that failed to include conditions to limit impacts, SELC is also engaged on the federal permitting side.  Several years ago we won a case challenging a “maintenance” permit issued to build the $35 million terminal.

The Army Corps of Engineers is now tasked with considering the impact of the SPA proposal, and has heard from hundreds of Charleston-area residents in person and in writing. Many have pressed the Corps to consider whether downtown is the right place for the new terminal.

The Corps has not made a decision to issue a federal permit needed to build the new terminal, or what limits, in any, would be appropriate.  As that process plays out, SELC will keep advocating for a balance that allows a thriving cruise industry while protecting the character and charm of downtown, a federally protected landmark.

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