Court rules Charleston cruise-terminal neighbors must be heard

A Carnival Cruise ship approaches the Charleston terminal. (© Arielle Simmons)

Neighbors affected by a proposed Charleston cruise terminal’s diesel soot and traffic congestion will finally have their voices heard on the terminal’s state permits.

The Supreme Court of South Carolina ruled the neighbors do indeed have the right – or the legal “standing” – to challenge allegedly unlawful pollution permits that will harm them. State permits would allow a new terminal – triple the size of the current one and capable of hosting much larger ships – to bring thousands of cars and large trucks to highly congested streets and emit over a hundred tons of harmful pollutants into the air every year.

The State Ports Authority, the project sponsor, has fought for years to keep these citizens from voicing any objections in the permitting process.

The Supreme Court recognized that South Carolina law gives people who are impacted by polluting facilities the right to be heard.”

—Senior Attorney Blan Holman

The court’s decision reverses the rulings of lower courts that wrongly declared those living nearby were not, in a legal term, “affected persons” and therefore did not have the standing to challenge state permits needed for the facility. The case will be sent back to an administrative law court, which will consider whether options to reduce and avoid impacts on neighbors are required.

“The Supreme Court recognized that South Carolina law gives people who are impacted by polluting facilities the right to be heard,” said Senior Attorney Blan Holman. “When a large new source of harmful pollutants is proposed next to a neighborhood—any neighborhood—the families impacted and living there are entitled to insist on all lawful protections.”

The case is not a referendum on the cruise industry, a new component of the city’s tourism economy. Rather, it is about seeking reasonable standards to balance the industry’s explosive growth with the health and wellbeing of people who live and work nearby while maintaining the economically vital charm of a city where many buildings pre-date the Revolutionary War. 

Since the State Ports Authority’s proposed terminal is engineered to bring larger and more polluting vessels to Charleston, neighbors sought pollution-control measures, enforceable limits on the number of ship visits per year, and consideration of other locations such as the underused Veterans Terminal outside of the Historic District. Before those concerns could be considered, the State Ports Authority succeeded in having lower courts block the neighbors’ participation.

“The goal all along has been to find solutions that work for everyone, not just the State Ports Authority and the cruise industry,” Holman said. “Including more voices in that process moves us closer to that goal.”

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