SC Supreme Court to Decide if Neighbors Can Challenge Cruise Terminal Permits

CHARLESTON, SC — The South Carolina State Supreme Court will determine whether neighbors living near the city’s Union Pier have the right to challenge state pollution permits issued for a large new cruise ship terminal proposed for historic downtown Charleston.

The Court today provided notice that it will review an appellate court decision that declared neighbors did not have the right – or the “standing” – to question the legality of pollution permits. The terminal would be designed to home base much larger vessels than have previously operated out of Charleston’s historic area. 

The permits would authorize construction of a 20-acre cruise terminal complex in downtown Charleston next to a National Historic Landmark District.

“This is a case about neighbors across South Carolina having the right to challenge unlawful permits that would authorize major polluting activities right next door,” said Blan Holman, managing attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Charleston Office. “The lower courts said families and businesses have no right to question permits for a large polluting facility or to hold the government accountable. We believe the neighbors do have that right, and we are heartened that the South Carolina Supreme Court has agreed to consider this case.”

For years, neighbors, preservationists, and conservationists have asked for measures to minimize pollution and traffic. When the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control issued permits for the project without those measures, the groups sought review in the state Administrative Law Court.

But that court and the S.C. Court of Appeals found that neighboring citizens lacked standing to have the permits reviewed because they did not qualify as “affected persons.”

In 2013 in a separate but related case challenging federal permits, a federal court reached the opposite conclusion on standing. The court eventually threw out the federal permit as unlawful.

Before state and federal officials, the local groups put forth options they say could reduce pollution, such as plug-in power used in other ports to reduce the soot emitted by cruise ships idling in port.  When the state permit was issued without considering those options, they challenged it as unlawful. 

Holman said he was surprised the matter had gone on for long as it has, given the economic value of the Charleston historic district and available options used by other ports to reduce pollution and traffic.  

“At the end of the day, we need to get to a solution that balances a cruise operation and the people, resources, and businesses around it,” said Holman.  “Stripping the rights of people across South Carolina to question unlawful pollution permits is not the way to get there.”

SELC and other attorneys represent the Preservation Society of Charleston, the Historic Charleston Foundation, the Historic Ansonborough Neighborhood Association, the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League, the Charleston Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, and Charleston Communities for Cruise Control.

The Supreme Court Case number is 2018-000137. The Appellate Case number is 2014-000847, and the Lower Court Case number is 2013-ALJ-07-0056-CC.

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