Groups Challenge Corps of Engineers in S.C. Wetlands

Based on federal protections under the Clean Water Act, the Southern Environmental Law Center and National Wildlife Federation on March 24 challenged a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers go-ahead to fill one of the largest remaining intact wetlands in an area near Murrells Inlet, S.C., within the Waccamaw River watershed.

“What’s at stake is protection for this wetland and thousands of acres of wetlands in South Carolina and throughout the United States,” said Chris DeScherer, attorney, Southern Environmental Law Center. “If wetlands like this one are not protected, both South Carolina and the nation will continue to lose invaluable natural freshwater resources at staggering rates.”

Recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings created confusion over which wetlands are protected by the federal Clean Water Act and, for many wetlands, essentially left it to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to decide the issue on a case-by-case basis. When the developer, Spectre, LLC proposed to fill the wetland in Horry County, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers declared the wetland “isolated” and therefore not subject to federal protections. An investigation by the public interest groups bringing suit indicates that the wetland qualifies for federal protection because it is connected with the Waccamaw River and provides significant benefits to the area, including flood storage, water purification, and habitat for wildlife and recreation.

“Like many wetlands around the country, this wetland is a vital part of our aquatic system,” said Nancy Cave, office director of the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League’s North Coast office. “It’s interconnected with our waterways and culture and provides valuable protection to our communities in addition to its vital role as habitat for wildlife and recreation.”

In addition to being a federal wetland, South Carolina law prohibits the discharge of pollutants to a wetland without a permit, and this lawsuit seeks to require the developer to apply for a permit before destroying the wetland. “When the federal government fails to protect wetlands and streams, the state of South Carolina must step up to the plate and protect its natural heritage,” said Ben Gregg, executive director of the South Carolina Wildlife Federation.

In filing the challenge in federal court, the Southern Environmental Law Center represents the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League, the South Carolina Wildlife Federation, the National Wildlife Federation, and the Waccamaw Riverkeeper. National Wildlife Federation is serving as co-counsel on the case. The suit is filed against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and Spectre, LLC.

The same wetland is the subject of a pending appeal by the South Carolina Environmental Law Project before the South Carolina Supreme Court.