Years after court order, cruise terminal impacts still not studied

Internal documents show the State Port Authority hasn’t responded to local concerns regarding a massive proposed cruise ship terminal in Charleston, above. (© iStock)

Review of more than 40,000 pages of documentation dumped on the United States Army Corps of Engineers show that the South Carolina State Port Authority (SPA) has done virtually nothing in response to a court order that required further analysis of an embattled leisure cruise facility proposed for Charleston’s historic district. 

For years, local citizens have been asking the Ports Authority to consider options for reducing the proposed terminal’s pollution and traffic impacts on surrounding historic neighborhoods, families, and visitors. The proposed terminal would be three times larger than an existing terminal on SPA’s property, and was engineered to home-base ships with nearly 5,000 persons aboard including crew.

In September of 2013, a federal court vacated an earlier permit – given without public notice under the guise that a $35 million terminal qualified as “maintenance” – as illegal and directed further study into the project’s impacts and options for reducing them, as required by law.

Citizens asked for consideration of shore power as used at terminals worldwide to reduce the toxic black soot emitted by very large cruise ships docked near their neighborhoods. A study commissioned by the citizens and shared with SPA showed that shore power would significantly reduce local pollution compared to all fuel types burned by cruise vessels. 

Rather than respond to that study, or respond to calls for limits on cruise vessel sizes, or consider other terminal locations to reduce impacts, the 40,000 pages of documents reveal that SPA focused its efforts on public relations campaigns in coordination with Carnival Cruise Lines to “put the hammer down” on South Carolina citizens who questioned SPA’s plans.

Among other things, SELC’s review of the 40,000 pages revealed:

  • Internal SPA documents showing that shore power is less expensive than SPA has publicly stated and is favored by other cruise ports;
  • Internal SPA documents contradicting the agency's publicly stated reasons for rejecting other terminal locations. For example, SPA publicly stated that cruise ships must dock starboard-to, but Carnival itself asked for the ability to dock portside;
  • Internal SPA documents show a coordinated campaign with Carnival cruise lines to "put the hammer down" on citizens who suggested options for reducing historic and environmental impacts;
  • SPA’s own documents characterize a "Voluntary Cruise Management Plan" reached with the City of Charleston as imposing no limits on SPA operations whatsoever. 

SELC’s report on the document review also includes a new independent analysis of an SPA traffic study. The analysis shows that traffic impacts from the cruise development project – proposed to be built in an area already choked with traffic – will be far worse than the agency stated publicly. 

“What a disappointment to see that the Ports Authority has done virtually nothing to address options suggested by citizens and questions raised by a federal court over two years ago,” said Blan Holman, Managing Attorney in SELC’s Charleston office.  “The Port Authority's attempt to ‘put the hammer down’ on local people and brushing off court orders is an errant course that only takes us farther away from solutions that work.”

The SELC report concludes that updated studies are long overdue, since the federal court’s decision was issued over two years ago and traffic congestion has only increased in downtown Charleston and the region overall. SELC’s comments were submitted on behalf of the Preservation Society of Charleston and the Coastal Conservation League.

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