April 18, 2023

SCELP takes action against illegal wetland filling in Georgetown County

PAWLEYS ISLAND, SC – On Wednesday, April 12, the South Carolina Environmental Law Project (SCELP) sent a Notice of Intent to Sue to two property owners on Renty Tucker Court in the Hagley Estates subdivision in Pawleys Island for violations of the Clean Water Act (CWA). After concerned citizen and neighbor Nick Stines alerted SCELP, an investigation showed that each of the two owners in question committed separate violations: one owner exceeded the scope of his Nationwide Permit by filling more wetlands than was authorized; the other owner filled wetlands without obtaining any federal CWA authorization.

Both properties are bounded in part by jurisdictional forested wetlands owned by the Georgetown County Environmental Protection Society. These wetlands are contiguous with and have a direct surface water connection to the Waccamaw River. The surrounding wetlands and forests are also an important habitat for a diverse array of wildlife and provide critical protection against flooding.

"After contacting my County councilman, who I truly believe wanted to help, I realized that developers have found that it's easier to ask for forgiveness than permission," said Stines. "In my opinion, the overwhelming increase in population, traffic and overdevelopment in our area is because we are lacking effective policies at the county level."

The situation at Renty Tucker Court raises important, related issues regarding the inability of the federal CWA permitting regime, including the Nationwide Permitting program, to adequately protect our nation’s waters and floodways. Nationwide permits (NWPs) are a type of permit issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers which are designed to streamline and speed up the CWA permitting process for certain activities deemed to have “minimal impacts” on waters of the United States. The first regulations for these permits were issued in the 1970s, establishing 15 different categories of NWPs.

Since that time, the NWP program has grown and continues to grow in scope; there are now 59 different NWP categories. The NWP program encompasses the vast majority of the Corps’ CWA permitting work, and, as a result, there is little on-the-ground oversight of permitted projects, leading to a system whereby permittees get away with breaking the law unless members of the public report observed violations. Equally as concerning is the landowner who knew he had wetlands on his property but didn’t even seek any CWA approval. In this case, Mr. Stines’ vigilance led to the investigation and uncovered the violations.

“This issue is a clear example of what we know is happening all around us: wetland systems simply do not have the protection needed to preserve important flood buffering and water quality functions,” said Amy Armstrong, executive director of the South Carolina Environmental Law Project.

These violations went unchecked not only by the Corps, but by Georgetown County, because the County has no protections for wetlands or wetland buffers. The proposed Natural Resources Element of the Georgetown County Comprehensive Plan includes the goal of drafting a wetlands protection ordinance, but consideration of the element was “indefinitely deferred” by County Council last month. Without local protections in place for wetlands, property owners will continue to fill and build in wetlands and we will pay the price in lower water quality and more flooding. Georgetown County has the ability to protect its valuable wetlands, as many other counties have already done; elected officials should take action as soon as possible.

“Now more than ever we need to step up and fight for protection of these natural systems that are essential for the health of our environment and for protecting us against flooding during storm events,” Armstrong said. “A local wetlands ordinance could do just that and we are 100% behind Georgetown County taking such decisive action to protect our residents — both human and nonhuman alike.”

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SCELP takes action against illegal wetland filling in Georgetown County

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