Calling the cruise ship industry “a threat to the very fabric of the city where so many love to work, live and visit,” Carrie Agnew — executive director of Charleston Communities for Cruise Control — echoed the views of a majority of people attending Tuesday’s public hearing over plans to build a new cruise ship terminal in Charleston.
While some who live near the proposed terminal said they support the project — “I have not been bothered at all by cruise ships,” said William Semmes — most residents and business owners asked the Army Corps of Engineers to reject the State Ports Authority’s plan to build a $35 million terminal on the north end of Union Pier.
“Cruise ships degrade the experience of the tourists that stay at the hotels and spend their money,” said Steven Dopp, owner of the Francis Marion Hotel at 387 King St. Dopp said that when he sits in his office at the hotel he can see black soot wafting from the cruise ships over the peninsula and he worries about the health impacts.
Dopp was among about 125 people who attended Tuesday’s hearing as part of the Army Corps’ process of deciding whether a permit for the terminal should be issued. The Army Corps will consider statements made Tuesday as well as documents submitted by the State Ports Authority and other groups before making a decision. About half of the people at the meeting already had submitted written comments on the proposal.
Col. Matthew Luzzatto, commander of the Army Corps’ Charleston office, said it is too early in the process to say when a permit decision will be made.
“Every permitting process has a unique set of challenges associated with it,” Luzzatto said, “This particular project has a lot of interest due to concerns about air quality, traffic and historic preservation.”
The Army Corps could approve or deny the SPA’s application or approve it with special conditions to make sure the project does not jeopardize endangered or threatened species or adversely impact critical habitat. The Army Corps also could require an Environmental Impact Statement, an in-depth study prepared by a third-party consultant, before making a decision.
Mike Mather, senior program communications manager for Southern Environmental Law Center, said the group is “not against the concept of a cruise terminal” but would like the Army Corps to consider alternatives to the current plan. “This permit process provides a fresh chance to look at all options,” Mather told The Post and Courier.
Those options include: building the terminal at another site; codifying limits on the number of ships and passengers that could visit if the terminal were built at Union Pier; and requiring technology, such as shore power, to reduce pollution.
“We are not opposed to a well-thought-out solution that best serves all needs,” Mather said.
The SPA wants to install five additional clusters of pilings beneath an old Union Pier warehouse that would be renovated as a cruise ship terminal. The project also would include a loading dock, parking areas, rain canopies, security fences and other items to support cruise ship operations.
SPA officials did not make any comments during Tuesday’s meeting, but did provide requested data and information the Army Corps and the state’s Department of Health and Environmental Control used during their presentations.
“We are confident that the project will ultimately receive the necessary permit, allowing the SPA to move forward with the new terminal,” said Erin Dhand, spokeswoman for the maritime agency.
The Army Corps is limited in what it can consider in making a decision. For example, a permit could not address some residents’ concerns about more or bigger ships visiting Union Pier. Nat Ball, project manager for the Army Corps, said such decisions would be market-driven and “really beyond our purview.”
“You have to keep in mind that they are renovating an existing facility,” Ball said, adding that the end result would be moving cruise ship operations north by a few hundred feet. Ball said the SPA has operated a facility at the new terminal site for 40 years and “that’s something that certainly has bearing in this case.”
The Union Pier site is near the city’s Historic District, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and identified as a National Historic Landmark. That means the Army Corps must seek input from historic preservation groups as part of the permitting process. Those groups say the terminal could increase pollution and congestion and have asked the SPA to move the terminal north to Columbus Street Terminal or North Charleston.
Jim Newsome, the SPA’s president and CEO, has said Union Pier is the only viable location for a cruise terminal.
Ball said the Army Corps has been meeting in recent months with environmental and historic preservation groups to get their input. Those groups would have to show that any impact from the proposed project would create new problems that don’t exist with the SPA’s current cruise ship operations.
“Part of the analysis is to figure out if it’s a similar impact,” Ball said. “If it’s a similar impact, we wouldn’t ask someone to go above and beyond to mitigate impacts that exist today. If there’s something new that would occur, there could be that potential”
Cruise ship supporters say the industry is an important part of the tourism economy and a source of jobs. The SPA has said a new terminal would improve traffic patterns and allow nearby streets to stay open during embarkation and debarkation days. The plan also would include better lighting, landscaping and sidewalks.
Erin Mullen, who operates shore excursions for cruise ships docking in Charleston, said she supports the new terminal and doesn’t believe there are problems with pollution in the area. “I’ve been at the cruise terminal for 30 years with no ill effects,” Mullen said.
Semmes said the ships “clearly bring a lot of very wealthy Europeans and other visitors to our city and they do spend money.”
The terminal plan, 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.
This is the second time the SPA has sought federal authorization for a new cruise terminal. The Army Corps issued a permit in 2012 but a federal judge reversed the decision in 2013, saying environmental and historic preservation laws had not been addressed.
A separate state permit for the terminal is pending before the state Court of Appeals. A state administrative law judge previously ruled that residents and environmentalists lacked legal standing to oppose the state permit.
Reach David Wren at 843-937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_