Charleston port officials, environmentalists disagree over viability of cruise ships at Veterans Terminal

Carnival Cruise Lines’ Sunshine is docked at the State Ports Authority’s cruise terminal near the city’s Historic District. The authority wants to build a new terminal at Union Pier.

The Southern Environmental Law Center on Thursday called for the State Ports Authority to move its proposed cruise ship terminal away from the city’s Historic District and to Veterans Terminal in North Charleston — something the maritime agency says it can’t do because of prohibitive costs and wharf damage that hasn’t been repaired.

Meanwhile, the environmental group is asking state Attorney General Alan Wilson to reconsider a formal opinion he issued this year saying the proposed terminal is exempt from the need for a state permit. The law center and historic preservation groups are suing the SPA over whether a previously issued state permit was properly granted, and the state’s Court of Appeals is expected to hear the case this summer.

Blan Holman, a lawyer for the groups, said the ports authority misrepresented the proposed site’s permitted uses and didn’t disclose plans for upgrades that go beyond what’s allowed by state law, unless a new permit is issued, in the agency’s letter to Wilson.

“We sent a letter (to Wilson) saying here are the facts they (SPA) didn’t tell you and here’s the law that they didn’t mention,” Holman said.

Wilson’s office has not responded to the environmental group’s request and a spokeswoman could not be reached for comment on Thursday.

The environmental group’s renewed effort to move the cruise ship facility to Veterans Terminal is related to a separate federal permit the SPA needs from the Army Corps of Engineers to proceed with its plans.

Holman said new documents obtained under the state’s Freedom of Information Act show Veterans Terminal is a viable alternative for the cruise facility. The Army Corps is required by law to consider alternatives that could lessen the impact on the environment and the city’s Historic District.

“We expected that there was some kind of blockbuster reason that Veterans Terminal hadn’t been considered, and it looked to us like there wasn’t one,” Holman said.

Among the documents Holman reviewed is a March letter in which the SPA responded to questions the Army Corps raised after receiving written statements from opponents of the cruise terminal. In answering a question about alternative locations, the maritime agency said Veterans Terminal won’t work because it “does not have the necessary or adequate infrastructure” and that “substantial modifications and improvements would need to be made to convert it from its present use.”

Also, a portion of the Veterans Terminal wharf collapsed in 2012 due to apparent overloading and the SPA said regulatory and permitting issues make it uncertain when repairs can be made.

SPA spokeswoman Erin Dhand said the maritime agency’s analysis “clearly reflects that the feasibility and practicality of relocating cruise operations to Veterans Terminal are prohibitive” and that the terminal will play a key role in supporting a new cargo terminal being built at the nearby former Navy base.

Holman said the SPA’s answers do not provide a compelling argument against using Veterans Terminal. He said there are several piers at the 110-acre facility where cruise ships could dock and that the terminal already has nearly 97,000 square feet of warehouse space that could be upgraded for passenger use. The terminal is located along the Cooper River about seven miles from the city’s Historic District

“We don’t see the cave-in as being a legitimate problem,” Holman said, adding that the SPA’s analysis lacks detail and does not spell out any specific future uses for Veterans Terminal.

“The ports authority says it doesn’t fit with our long-term plans but, legally, that’s not a very strong reason not to look at it,” he said. “Operationally, there are a lot of reasons to do it at Veterans Terminal — proximity to the airport and Interstate 26, shuttles for people who want to go downtown. It seems like a great option.”

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The Army Corps held a public hearing on the terminal proposal in April, and most of the speakers expressed concerns about increased traffic, noise, pollution and impacts on historical structures. Following the public hearing, more than 100 letters were written to the Army Corps opposing the project. There were 20 letters written in support of the cruise terminal.

Army Corps spokeswoman Glenn Jeffries said the agency does not have a timetable for when it will make a permitting decision.

“We are in the process of reviewing all of the written comments we have received to ensure that we address and evaluate any concerns that were raised,” Jeffries said. “After we have reviewed the comments, we will consolidate the information and then request any additional information that we may need from the applicant to adequately address those issues.”

The proposal, which has been on the drawing board since 2010, would replace a nearby, early 1970s-era facility used mostly by Carnival Cruise Lines, which calls Charleston the home port for its Ecstasy ship.

The federal permit would allow five additional clusters of pilings beneath an old Union Pier warehouse that would be renovated as a new terminal north of the existing building. The project also would include a loading dock, parking areas, rain canopies, security fences and other items to support cruise ship operations.

Reach David Wren at 843-937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_