Coastal Management

New Cruise Ship Terminal

We filed an appeal of a DHEC permit authorizing a new and enlarged cruise ship terminal at Union Pier on the Charleston peninsula. Our appeal challenged the expansion on the basis of a host of environmental and social impacts created by the increased presence of docked cruise ships.
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Case Background

The S.C. State Ports Authority is seeking to construct a new, expanded cruise ship terminal at Union Pier in the heart of the historic district of downtown Charleston. On behalf of a coalition of community groups, SCELP filed a challenge to the state permit that authorizes construction of the new terminal in the Administrative Law Court and the case was assigned to Chief Administrative Law Judge Tripp Anderson.

A docked cruise ship in Charleston.

The Preservation Society of Charleston, Historic Charleston Foundation, Historic Ansonborough Neighborhood Association, South Carolina Coastal Conservation League, Charlestowne Neighborhood Association, Charleston Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation and Charleston Communities for Cruise Control asked for SCELP’s assistance in appealing a permit issued by DHEC to the S.C. State Ports Authority (“SPA”) to install pilings in critical area; make structural changes to a building constructed over the critical area; and construct two covered staging areas designed to handle passengers, luggage, and loading and unloading of ship supplies at the Union Pier Terminal. The permit allows SPA to increase both the size and the quantity of cruise ships that dock at the Union Pier Terminal in Charleston.

Why It's Important

The project would lead to a host of environmental and social impacts created by the increased presence of docked cruise ships, including: increased airshed emissions, traffic volumes, and traffic noise; health implications; and depressed property values. Particularly troubling is the spike in sulfur dioxide (“SO2") emissions that come from a docked cruise ship. Cruise liners utilize a fuel high in sulfur that generates SO2 when burned, and these emissions become very problematic when the ship is in port and the SO2 emissions are not being diffused. SO2 is a major component of acid rain and also is known to create a variety of health issues, particularly in those with breathing problems.

We thoroughly briefed and responded to motions filed by SPA throughout the late-summer and fall of 2013 and succeeded in defeating SPA's motion to dismiss. By Order dated December 2, 2013, Judge Anderson ruled in our favor that the community groups had standing to appeal DHEC's permit authorizing the new terminal at Union Pier. However, SPA then filed a motion for summary judgment, which was also based on a lack of standing at the end of December.

Extensive briefing continued into 2014 with a variety of motions filed by both parties, including a motion to allow us to take the depositions of some of SPA's key witnesses and employees and a motion to remand the matter for review of the state approvals SPA would need to obtain in light of the ruling by U.S. District Judge Gergel in September 2013 invalidating the federal authorization for the project, which were both denied by Judge Anderson.

On April 11, 2014, Judge Anderson granted SPA's motion for summary judgment finding that the community groups lacked standing to proceed in the contested case hearing and disposing of all remaining pending motions. On April 21, 2014, we filed an appeal on behalf of the community groups with the SC Court of Appeals.

The Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in February 2017 and issued its opinion in October 2017 finding that the conservation, preservation and neighborhood groups lack legal standing to contest DHEC's issuance of state permits for construction of the new cruise terminal. The Court of Appeals denied our request for a rehearing. In January 2018, we filed a petition for certiorari with the Supreme Court asking that it step in to review the Court of Appeals' decision, which contradicts the facts and prior legal precedent as well as undermines citizens' rights to speak out relating to projects that affect their lives and community.

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments on our case on June 11, 2019, and we are now awaiting the Court's decision.

Case Update

On February 19, 2020 the Supreme Court reversed and remanded the lower court’s decision.

The ruling from the state’s highest court is a significant victory for the rights of citizens to challenge permitting decisions that affects their quality of life!

“This case is a resounding victory for citizens and groups throughout South Carolina who seek to protect their communities from environmental degradation authorized by a DHEC permitting decision. This decision ensures that all citizens have a right to their day in court.” said SCELP Executive Director Amy Armstrong.

In May of 2022, Carnival Cruise Line announced that it would pull its full-time, year-round cruise ship business out of Charleston at the end of 2024. The existing terminal at Union Pier will be refurbished and continue to be used for ships making shorter, port-of-call stops to the city.

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