Georgia Conservation Groups File Federal Challenge to Sea Island Groin

SAVANNAH, GA—Georgia conservation groups are challenging a federal permit that could allow the construction of a third coastal barrier wall on Sea Island to begin as soon as today.  

On behalf of Altamaha Riverkeeper and One Hundred Miles, the Southern Environmental Law Center filed a federal suit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia late yesterday against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, charging that the agency failed to adequately consider less damaging alternatives. In light of the permit conditions allowing construction of the project to begin today, the groups have also filed a preliminary injunction.

In addition to two existing structures, Sea Island Acquisition LLC initially applied for a permit to construct a new 350-foot-long groin—a wall constructed perpendicular to the beach that traps shifting sand—to create 1,200 feet of new beach to increase the marketability for eight luxury lots on a narrow, ecologically-sensitive strip of land, known as the spit, on the southern end of the island.

The first permitted groin on the Georgia coast since the early 1990s, the extent of the project has changed following damage sustained to the island by Hurricanes Matthew in 2016 and Irma in 2017. Among other impacts, the storms severely eroded the beach face and many of the frontal dunes on the Spit. The storms also damaged the main reach of the Sea Island beach, stripping much of the sand from between the existing groins.

As a result of the storm damage and loss of sand, Sea Island Acquisition LLC amended its permit application in order to dredge sand from offshore in addition to constructing the groin, expanding the proposed beachfront area from 1,200 to 17,000 feet.  Despite the expanded scope of the project, the groups charge that the Corps did not sufficiently consider alternatives.

Though the Georgia coast was largely spared from Hurricane Florence’s impacts, the developer applied for an emergency permit to protect the lots when the storm was approaching in anticipation of flooding and erosion issues.

"The significant erosion caused by the existing groin to the Sea Island spit, Gould’s Inlet, and St. Simons Island coupled with the hurricane damage shows just how vulnerable this area is—and will continue to be—in the face of future weather events," said Jen Hilburn, Altamaha Riverkeeper. "We have seen time and again that groins and other harmful coastal structures do not solve the problems that result from shoreline erosion and in fact, can create even more long-term damage."

In comments submitted to the Corps in May on behalf of One Hundred Miles, Altamaha Riverkeeper, and the Surfrider Foundation, SELC argued that like the existing groins, the proposed groin will continue to cause significant erosion to the Sea Island spit, which serves as key habitat and nesting areas for several species of threatened and endangered sea turtles and shorebirds.

Largely protected by a conservation easement, the spit is also a popular recreation area for both local residents and tourists who frequently visit the public areas below the high water line to paddle, surf, bird-watch, and walk.

"Moving forward with this project would come at a steep price to Georgians who cherish this idyllic place as one of the last undeveloped areas on Sea Island,” said Megan Desrosiers, Executive Director of One Hundred Miles. “On top of the serious concerns for federally protected wildlife, building a groin that will substantially harm the public interest for the sake of a few unbuilt, poorly-situated lots is entirely contrary to the public interest."

Since the project was initially proposed in 2015, public outcry has continued to grow, with strong opposition from numerous environmental organizations, coastal communities, residents of Sea Island, elected officials, and state and federal agencies.

"If we continue to allow these types of reckless and destructive projects along the Georgia coast, we run the risk of irreparably damaging the natural beauty and resources that make this unique region such an incredible asset to our state," said Bill Sapp, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center. "There’s simply too much at stake to open our coast to this sort of ill-advised development."

Click here to read the complaint.

Click here to read the preliminary injunction.

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About Altamaha Riverkeeper: Altamaha Riverkeeper is a non-profit organization that’s been dedicated to the protection, defense, and restoration of the Altamaha, Ocmulgee, Oconee & Ohoopee Rivers and the Golden Isles since 1999.  With the largest river system draining into the SE Atlantic Ocean, Altamaha Riverkeeper continues to protect the rights of our communities use and enjoyment of over 700 miles of rivers in Georgia and hundreds of miles of navigable waterways along our Golden Isles. www.altamahariverkeeper.org

About One Hundred Miles: One Hundred Miles is a coastal advocacy organization dedicated to protecting, preserving and enhancing the 100-mile Georgia coast.  One Hundred Miles seeks to bring statewide attention to the opportunities and challenges facing Georgia’s unique coast. www.onehundredmiles.org

About Southern Environmental Law Center: For more than 30 years, the Southern Environmental Law Center has used the power of the law to champion the environment of the Southeast. With over 70 attorneys and nine offices across the region, SELC is widely recognized as the Southeast’s foremost environmental organization and regional leader. SELC works on a full range of environmental issues to protect our natural resources and the health and well-being of all the people in our region. www.SouthernEnvironment.org

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