Polling by South Carolina agency targets partner group; SELC seeks records

The character of historic downtown Charleston is at issue in an ongoing debate over permits for work on the peninsula's cruise ship terminal. (© SELC/Mike Mather)

This week SELC filed a Freedom of Information Act request with South Carolina State Ports Authority for files related to the agency’s recent opinion polling. A story in Tuesday’s Charleston Post & Courier reports that pollsters randomly called a reporter at the paper, posing questions to gauge public opinion of the cruise industry, authority officials, and the Executive Director of a local non-profit, the Coastal Conservation League.

According to the Post & Courier, the port authority officials paid $35,000 for polling data from 800 state residents on issues ranging from their opinions of local mayors and the agency’s cargo terminal project, as well as of organizations like SELC’s client, the Coastal Conservation League, and its Executive Director, Dana Beach.

“It seems strange, inappropriate and even slightly conspiratorial that the SPA would spend public dollars polling people about what they think of a public interest group, and even stranger about an individual—me,” said Beach.

The Ports Authority’s polling precedes a state Court of Appeals hearing scheduled for November concerning state permits for a proposed cruise ship terminal in historic downtown Charleston. SELC is representing the Coastal Conservation League and other groups who challenged the state permit because it failed to consider options for reducing cruise impacts, like shorepower, limits on ship size, or alternative terminal locations.

The Ports Authority’s proposal for a new terminal to home-base much larger cruise ships in the downtown Charleston historic area has prompted intense local concern from nearby families and businesses already experiencing severe traffic congestion.  The new terminal would be three times larger than the existing terminal, and the Ports Authority has purchased a loading cruise ramp that could accommodate vessels with over 4,000 passengers—almost twice as many as current ships.  The Ports Authority also plans a forty acre redevelopment that would bring thousands more vehicles into the traffic-choked area.

Citizens are pressing for full consideration of options to keep cruise operations balanced with the health and economy of the Charleston Peninsula. For example, they have asked for regulators to evaluate Veterans Terminal in North Charleston—an underutilized terminal owned by the Ports Authority— as an optional site. They are also asking for Charleston to join other ports worldwide in using shore-power to eliminate the diesel soot emitted while the large ships are at berth. (Cruise ships, with thousands of people aboard, burn much more fuel while docked than do cargo ships.) They also seek binding standards on the size and number of ships.

The overwhelming majority of public comments received on the proposed permits have raised these concerns and pressed for these solutions, but so far have gone ignored.

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