After nearly three years in federal court, the State Ports Authority and the Coastal Conservation League reached a settlement Friday that clears the way for progress on the new container terminal under construction in North Charleston.
The agreement calls for the authority to monitor and reduce air emissions from existing operations and the planned terminal at the former Navy base. The agency must launch by 2014 a voluntary program to replace 85 percent of port trucks that predate 1994, and it must consider rail proposals for the new terminal.
Perhaps SPA board member Whit Smith put it best after a swift vote during an emergency teleconference meeting: "It's amazing how quickly it was over for how long it took," he said.
Mediation wrapped up Monday after four sessions that spanned several months. The SPA board approved the settlement Friday morning, and U.S. District Court Judge C. Weston Houck dismissed the case the same day.
League executive director Dana Beach said the lawsuit stemmed from worries about how the port expansion will affect human health and mobility. He said the truck provision of the settlement should reduce air pollution from port-serving trucks by one-third.
"Now is the time to really aggressively look at all ways to move freight and people," Beach said. "This step by the SPA is an important step toward that end."
SPA chief executive Jim Newsome said the pending lawsuit led his agency to take "a bit of a measured approach" in developing its new terminal in recent months. He also called the port industry an environmental business today.
"We want to constructively help and improve air quality here," Newsome said. "We are all, ultimately, residents of this community."
Newsome estimated that between 10 percent and 15 percent of trucks currently serving the port are 1994 models or older. His agency plans to apply for federal grant money to replace those vehicles and to invest $2 million to $3 million of its own funding.
"We intend to put some financial skin in this game," Newsome said.
The SPA also will consider options for rail service to the new terminal, a contentious debate for which the agency has remained conspicuously on the sidelines in the past.
North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey recently signed an agreement with railroad company CSX Corp. and developer Shipyard Creek Associates that calls for redevelopment of CSX's Cooper Yard and Shipyard Creek's Macalloy property into an intermodal rail facility and warehousing space to serve the new port terminal.
CSX's primary competition, Norfolk Southern Corp., instead supports a train operation on another piece of land just to the north of Macalloy known as the Clemson property. The narrow property, across the street from a wind-turbine research site, would let both railroads serve the new port terminal, with Norfolk Southern coming in from the north and CSX from the south.
Newsome said shipping lines want choice in their train service, adding that "both railroads need to be enthusiastically engaged and encouraged to find a solution."
Under the terms of Friday's settlement, the league will dismiss its federal case and not pursue its appeal of state permits beyond the S.C. Supreme Court, where that case currently sits. The state lawsuit dates back even farther to 2006.
The Charleston-based environmental group sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which issued the permit for the port expansion in April 2007. The Corps also approved an access road that would link the new terminal to Interstate 26.
The league argued that the Corps had violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to adequately analyze all the environmental and traffic-related consequences and not re-evaluating the project after new information became available. The group said the Corps did not rigorously investigate alternatives to the terminal or its truck traffic, including cleaner rail service.
The SPA later intervened in the lawsuit and became a party in the case. Friday's dismissal ends the lawsuit for all parties involved.
North Charleston City Councilman Michael Brown, who represents some of the communities closest to the terminal development, welcomed Friday's news.
"Anything that would improve air quality, I'm all for it," he said.
The league's lawsuit alleged that the new terminal would increase truck and ship pollution, reducing air quality to levels that violate federal standards and diminishing water quality in Charleston Harbor and in the Cooper River. Much of the argument dealt with transportation projects tied to the new terminal, including the proposed widening of a 5-mile stretch along I-26.
An access road linking the Navy base with I-26 by way of an interchange would add about 10,000 vehicles per day to the interstate, including about 7,000 truck trips, according to the complaint.
The SPA had countered that regulatory agencies scrutinized plans for the $700 million, 280-acre terminal for four years at a $5 million cost. The first phase of the container-handling operation, originally slated for completion in 2012, now should wrap up in 2017.
That delay comes, in part, because of the shipping slowdown during the global economic recession.