Keep safety valve to protect S.C. natural resources

Visitors flock to the Angel Oak on Johns Island near Charleston, S.C., on Friday, Sept. 20, 2013. (AP Photo/Bruce Smith)

Clear-cut landscapes cannot always be replanted, filled marshland cannot be unfilled and contaminated water cannot easily be purified. So time is of the essence when new developments pose a threat to sensitive ecosystems.

To that end, South Carolina law places an automatic stay on state environmental permits when a concerned party files an appeal. The stay prevents development from moving forward until an administrative court can address concerns raised in the appeal.

Current law also allows the stay to be lifted if a developer can show good cause and prove that moving forward carries no risk of irreversible environmental damage. That safety valve was added as a compromise between business and environmental groups to help prevent frivolous delays and meritless appeals.

But a bill currently in the state Senate would undermine important protections by limiting automatic stays to 30 days. During that period, the appealing party must go before an administrative law judge to show that irreparable harm could occur if the stay is lifted and that their appeal will likely prevail on merit.

Forcing the issue within that time frame would substantially burden groups seeking simply to ensure that environmental permits are properly granted and sufficiently protective. And adding the time constraint risks the possibility that projects could move forward before a judge can address the appeal.

Nonetheless, the bill’s sponsors contend that the changes are needed to prevent environmental groups from hindering the state’s economic and infrastructure development.

“The current process is like a nuclear weapon,” said Sen. Greg Hembree, R-Horry, one of the bill’s sponsors. “It just takes a letter and a filing fee to stop everything in its tracks.”

That disproportionate power has forced organizations to appease environmental groups before starting the permitting process just to avoid hassles down the road, he contends.

But the automatic stay has helped produce some critical victories for conservation in the state. It was, for example, a critical factor in blocking a high-density apartment development near the Angel Oak on Johns Island. Eventually the iconic tree became the centerpiece of a larger public park — and its prospects were improved in perpetuity.

Moreover, there are plenty of recent examples of environmental and business interests working together for the greater good of the state. In just the past year, environmental organizations collaborated with the State Ports Authority and Boeing to preserve thousands of acres of critical land in the Cooper River Basin and near the Francis Marion National Forest.

Such landmark conservation agreements prove that business and environmental groups can work cooperatively to find solutions that support both economic growth and important preservation efforts. They can also help prevent costly legal battles down the road.

South Carolina and its leaders should work hard to foster business growth, needed infrastructure development and a sound economy. But those goals — and the state’s residents — depend on a healthy, thriving natural environment.

That is why the permit appeals process exists in the first place, and why it, too, must be protected.