SPA again seeks cruise terminal permit

An aerial view of Charleston's cruise ship terminal at the south end of Union Pier. The State Ports Authority want to relocate it to the north end.

Nearly a year after a judge tossed out a permit for a $35 million cruise terminal in Charleston, the State Ports Authority is once again seeking federal permission for the project.

Documents provided to The Associated Press through the Freedom of Information Act show a new review of the contentious project will be more extensive than that conducted when the Army Corps of Engineers gave initial permission in April 2012.

And another state approval is now needed.

The SPA needs a federal permit to place additional pilings beneath an old waterfront warehouse at the north end of Union Pier that it wants to renovate as a new cruise ship terminal.

Environmental and preservation groups challenged the original permit and U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel tossed it out last September. He ruled that while the Army Corps considered how the terminal would affect navigable waters, it did not study the larger impact on the city and its Historic District.

In a July 23 letter to the Army Corps, James Van Ness, a vice president with the SPA, asked the Army Corps again begin its review of the project.

In response, Charleston District Engineer Lt. Col. John Litz said he will use his discretionary authority to require an individual permit, meaning a more detailed review. The earlier federal approval came under a so-called nationwide permit that authorizes, with limited delay and paperwork, activities considered to have only minimal environmental impact.

Litz asked the SPA for any information that will be helpful when the Army Corps issues a public permit notice.

"The proposed project has received substantial media attention regarding potential impacts to air quality, historic properties and roadway traffic in the vicinity of the existing marine cargo and passenger terminal," he wrote. "Providing information about these issues will help inform the Corps' public interest review and will also inform interested parties."

The SPA also will now need to apply for a separate state water quality certification. That wasn't needed before because that state approval was encompassed in the federal nationwide permit.

Blan Holman, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, which has represented groups opposing the terminal, welcomes the wider federal review.

"The Corps is right to take a fresh, public look at the major impacts this proposal will have on Charleston for years to come and options like shore power that could reduce them," he said.

It's been four years since the terminal was proposed and since Carnival Cruise Lines based its 2,056-passenger liner Fantasy in Charleston, giving the city a year-round cruise industry.

Those opposing the terminal want a limit on the number and size of cruise ships and want the ships to either use electric power from the shore or to burn low-sulfur fuel while idling at dockside.

Supporters of the cruise industry say it's only a niche market, creates jobs in Charleston and is being appropriately handled.

A challenge to a state permit for the terminal pilings is now before the S.C. Court of Appeals.