Press Release | July 23, 2013

Corps’ Flawed Decision Risks Georgia’s Scenic Coastal Marshes

The Southern Environmental Law Center today challenged in federal court the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ general permit authorizing the construction of large single-family docks along the Georgia Coast that can kill its vital marsh grasses.  The docks can be longer than three football fields without regard to how many there are. Today’s suit contends that the Corps violated federal law by allowing docks made of grated decking instead of traditional wooden planks to exceed the general permit’s size limit even though a study relied on by the Corps shows both decking materials are just as damaging to marsh grasses.

“Since shading from docks harms Georgia’s marsh, the Corps should carefully review larger docks instead of exempting them from public scrutiny,” said Nate Hunt, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “The Corps inexplicably based its size exemption for docks made of grated materials on a study that actually finds those docks can be just as damaging to marshes as traditional wooden docks.  The Environmental Protection Agency and other public commenters pointed out this contradiction to the Corps before it made its decision.”

On behalf of the Center for a Sustainable Coast and the Savannah Riverkeeper, the Southern Environmental Law Center filed suit in the United States District Court in Savannah. The groups are challenging the Corps’ decision because its stated reasoning for the size exception is contradicted by the same study the Corps says it relied on in determining the exception.

“Our water systems and their health are vital to keeping our communities healthy and economically viable,” said Savannah Riverkeeper Tonya Bonitatibus. “In this instance, the Corps’ decision will allow undue harm on those resources, and the Corps has based its decision on a study that clearly contradicts its chosen position. For that reason, we chose to move forward.”

Under the general permit, docks may exceed the permit’s maximum walkway size by 25 percent if constructed with grated decking such as fiberglass or metal. This exception is based on the Corps’ flawed conclusion that grated walkways reduce shading impacts of traditional wooden walkways by 25 percent. The Corps states that it based its determination on the recent study conducted by Dr. Clark Alexander of the Skidaway Institute, although his evaluation of dock materials showed that grated materials, such as grated fiberglass, did not lessen the shading impact of traditional wooden docks. In contrast to the Corps’ determination, the docks studied by Dr. Alexander showed that “neither current alternative materials nor construction methods effectively negate the effects of dock shading in our region.”

“It is simply unacceptable for the Corps to say it relied on Dr. Alexander’s valuable research but ignore his conclusions that directly apply to marsh protection regulation,” asserted David Kyler, executive director of Center for a Sustainable Coast. “We often hear from agencies that there must be more scientific research conducted before revising regulations on the environment, but in this situation the Corps – with DNR’s approval – deliberately refused to take new information into consideration when it could be used to help sustain essential marsh functions.”

Under a general permit, docks can be constructed without public notice or comment and with less environmental review than individual permits issued by the corps. Given the large expanse of Georgia’s scenic coastal marshlands, private docks can exceed several football fields in length to reach navigable waters and without any restrictions on how many docks can be constructed.  These docks shade marsh vegetation that “naturally receives full sun, resulting in lower production rates in Spartina alterniflora, Georgia’s dominant marsh plant, and the most important primary producer for saltmarsh ecosystems along the east coast,” according to Dr. Alexander’s study.

Before the Corps issued its general permit, the conservation groups expressed concerns to the Corps that the study on which it said it based the size exception for grated docks wholly contradicted the exception.  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also asked the Corps to revise the general permit to accurately reflect the study’s conclusions.

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Kathleen Sullivan

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