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Editorial: No one wins as the cruise ship controversy drags on in court

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Cruise terminal

This rendering of Charleston's proposed cruise ship terminal is many years old. The project has stalled because of a protracted legal fight over permitting. (Provided)

This month’s S.C. Supreme Court ruling that a lawsuit over Charleston’s planned cruise terminal may proceed is welcome news for downtown residents fearful of the project’s impact on their quality of life. It also should motivate the State Ports Authority to respect those concerns and consider coming to the table to address them rather than letting this legal saga drag on.

The court’s decision not to rehear the case came despite House Speaker Jay Lucas filing a brief arguing that state residents don’t automatically have a right to challenge environmental permits even if they’ll be affected by their outcome. The S.C. Administrative Law Court is expected to review evidence and testimony and then decide if the State Ports Authority can replace its existing cruise passenger terminal at Union Pier with a new one.

The Supreme Court’s cruise terminal ruling could reverberate well beyond the cruise ship debate. Blan Holman, an attorney representing opponents of the terminal, told reporter David Wren that a different ruling “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.”

In addition to the state permit, the Ports Authority needs a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers to proceed with its terminal, and residents and preservation groups also have sued in federal court over that. It’s unclear when a hearing in that case will be held.

We remain convinced that the best solution on this important issue, which already has dragged on fruitlessly for more than a decade, will be found in a meeting room, not a courtroom.

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We realize previous attempts at compromise unfortunately have faltered, but enough time has passed that we are hopeful a fresh effort could have a different and far more positive outcome. While the positions and attitudes don’t seem to have changed much on either side, perhaps the passage of time and the arrival of new faces might make a deal possible.

Laura Cantral, executive director of the Coastal Conservation League, is one such new face. “Our goal is to make sure the health and quality of life of the people of Charleston, and especially those living in communities near the cruise terminal, are protected,” she says. “We’re open to considering any ideas as long as they keep that goal front and center.”

There are many interlocking issues in this debate. This dispute is not only about a new cruise terminal’s location on Union Pier but also about: whether the SPA should face a penalty if it exceeds its voluntary cap of no more than one cruise ship docking at a time, and no more than 104 visits a year; whether cruise ship passengers should be taxed more to contribute to the city; and whether the authority should require cruise ships to do more to reduce emissions while they’re in port.

The pandemic has hit the cruise ship industry hard: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published its first “No Sail Order” affecting all cruise ship activity in U.S. ports, and the order is expected to last at least until Sept. 30, though it could be extended. Carnival Cruise Line, whose ship Sunshine is based here, has said it won’t resume operations until November at the earliest.

The cruise industry’s pandemic-induced pause seems like a logical time for a reset, and how the industry continues to interact with historic Charleston should very much be a part of that.

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