COLUMBIA — The submarine Clamagore took a step closer to being turned into an artificial reef after lawmakers insisted Tuesday on spending $2.7 million to sink the Cold War-era submarine off South Carolina's shores.
The Legislature voted overwhelmingly to override Gov. Henry McMaster's vetoes on the project, putting money back into the state budget to sink the Clamagore — part of the fleet at Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum — to become a haven for fish.
Officials called it the best of three bad options for the corroding steel vessel that's floated in Charleston Harbor for four decades.
State Rep. Joe Daning, R-Goose Creek, unsuccessfully urged his colleagues to instead save and repair the last-of-its-kind vessel.
"We're sinking history," said Daning, an Air Force veteran.
But Ways and Means Chairman Murrell Smith countered the price tag for restoring the deteriorating outer hull already tops $9 million, and that estimate will keep rising.
Any legislator voting to uphold the veto, he warned, better be willing to put their name on a request for whatever that full tab is next year.
Smith, R-Sumter, laid out three options: Legislators can either give Patriots Point the $2.7 million requested to sink the 74-year-old submarine; fund several times that next year to restore it; or "we can leave it where it is, parked in Charleston Harbor, let it continue to rot and wait until we have another hurricane."
Smith said the last option could send the sub to the bottom in a way that could disrupt port traffic.
"That's just what we need is a submarine sitting in the middle of the channel," he told his colleagues. "It's one of those three options. You choose."
Where the sub is positioned now, however, is a distance from the shipping channel and inland from the WWII-era aircraft carrier Yorktown.
On the Senate side, Sen. Stephen Goldfinch called sinking the vessel "the most fiscally responsible option."
If the submarine sank on its own, the state could also be stuck with an environmental cleanup bill, said the Murrells Inlet Republican.
The tab to sink the Clamagore includes stripping the submarine of all environmental pollutants that could harm marine life, as well as pieces that will become part of a memorial on land.
Built in 1945, the diesel-powered sub was in the Panama Canal on its way to battle in the South Pacific when World War II ended. The 322-foot-long sub was twice updated before being decommissioned in 1975.
Fourteen years later, the Clamagore was designated a National Historic Landmark as the lone survivor among the WWII-era subs that received that last round of equipment upgrades in the early ’60s.
The two Clamagore vetoes, tallying $2.7 million, were among 28 items McMaster struck from the budget that takes effect in six days.
His vetoes collectively would have stripped $41 million from the budget — a fraction of the more than $9 billion spending plan for state taxes. By the end of Tuesday's special one-day veto session, all of that money was returned. The three vetoes legislators upheld were directives that didn't spend money.
Tuesday's vote won't be the final say for the Clamagore, a state-owned floating museum since 1981. A group of submarine veterans sued earlier this year to stop the sinking. They argue Patriots Point's cost estimates for restoration are too high and could be done for a fraction. The lawsuit also contends the state agency doesn't have permission from the Navy to sink it.
However, that permission came in a letter Monday, said Patriots Point spokesman Chris Hauff.
The agency merely has to keep the Navy informed of the steps taken to dispose of it properly, he said.
"This was great news for us today," Hauff said of the Legislature's votes. "It's the cheapest and best way for our museum to be self-sustainable."
While it's technically a state agency, Patriots Point is funded through admission fees, not state taxes. The biggest attraction in its fleet is the Yorktown, which officials say needs $50 million worth of work over the next 20 years.
Patriots Point still owes the state $8 million, which it must start paying back next year, following a $13 million restoration of the destroyer Laffey, also a WWII-era ship.
Smith used the debate over that loan to argue for paying to sink the Clamagore instead of restore it.
"If you recall the Laffey debacle we had, wait till you see this one," he said.
McMaster had no opinion Tuesday on whether the submarine should be sunk or preserved. Whatever happens to it should not involve taxpayer money, he said hours before legislators voted.
Asked about his vetoes, he replied, "I would like not to spend taxpayer money on sinking the submarine off the shore."
In his veto message, McMaster said creating artificial reefs to deter storm surge is a well-intentioned idea, but sinking the Clamagore won't do that and will spend public money only to benefit fishermen and divers.
Goldfinch said the message confounded him: "We're talking about sinking a boat in 100-plus feet of water. It has nothing to do with flooding."