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SC Supreme Court won't rehear case giving Charleston cruise terminal opponents their say

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Cruise terminal

The S.C. Supreme Court rejected requests to reconsider its ruling last year that historic preservation, neighborhood and environmental groups have legal standing to challenge a new cruise ship terminal planned for downtown Charleston. File/Lauren Petracca/Staff

A last-minute appeal from one of South Carolina's top politicians failed to sway state Supreme Court's justices, who unanimously rejected a request to reconsider their previous ruling in a lawsuit over whether Charleston residents can oppose a new cruise ship terminal.

The high court on Friday turned down a request to rehear the case weeks after Jay Lucas, speaker of the S.C. House of Representatives, argued that state residents don't automatically have a right to challenge environmental permits even if they'll be affected by their outcome.

Lucas filed a "friend of the court" brief month requesting a rehearing in the years-old case, drawing criticism from project opponents who called his filing "inexcusably late."

The denial means the S.C. Administrative Law Court must now consider evidence and testimony from opponents of the terminal to determine whether the State Ports Authority can get a permit to build the terminal at Union Pier in downtown Charleston. The Supreme Court in February overturned the lower court's 2014 ruling that said people living nearby — as well as historic preservation and environmental groups — didn't have a right to fight the permit issued by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.

Blan Holman, one of the attorneys representing opponents of the terminal, said the high court's decision will have far-reaching environmental consequences. 

"We are relieved that the Supreme Court upheld the rights of families and property owners to protect themselves from unlawful pollution," he said. "The State Ports Authority's attempt to gut challenges to illegal DHEC permits would have crippled our ability to protect our beaches from offshore oil drilling and defend our neighborhoods from toxic waste dumps. All South Carolinians should breathe a sigh of relief."

A spokeswoman for the SPA did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday. The authority and DHEC had also asked the Supreme Court to reconsider its earlier ruling.

The Administrative Law Court has not set a date to hear the case.

The ports authority has been trying for years to replace its existing, aging 1970s-era terminal that sits a few hundred yards south of the proposed site. The current building is used primarily by Carnival Cruise Line, which operates year-round trips on its Sunshine ship. Other cruise lines have ports of call at the terminal. 

Charleston hosted 217,673 cruise passengers in fiscal 2020, which ended June 30. The authority and the city agreed on a voluntary limit of 104 cruise ships per year and no vessel larger than 3,500 passengers. Cruises have been on hold throughout the U.S. since mid-March because of coronavirus concerns, and Carnival said it won't resume voyages until November at the earliest.

DHEC previously issued a permit that would authorize structural changes to an existing warehouse at Union Pier, the construction of two covered staging areas to handle passengers and luggage, and the installation of five clusters of concrete pilings to support three elevators and two escalators. Opponents sought a review of that permit at the Administrative Law Court, which hears disputes involving state agencies. That set up the current legal challenge.

In addition to the state permit, the SPA will need federal approval from the Army Corps of Engineers to build the terminal. Opponents have challenged that in U.S. District Court. No hearings are scheduled in that case.

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

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