The State Ports Authority this morning voted to accept a settlement with the Coastal Conservation League in the environmental group's lawsuit seeking to halt progress on a new container terminal and its access road under construction in North Charleston.
The maritime agency's board met in an emergency meeting and authorized SPA chief executive Jim Newsome to sign the agreement.
The settlement calls for the authority to monitor and reduce air emissions from its existing operations and to launch by 2014 a voluntary program to replace 85 percent of port trucks that predate 1994. It also calls for consideration for rail access at the new terminal, another contentious issue.
The primary defendant in the league's complaint is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which issued the permit for the port expansion. The SPA later intervened in the lawsuit and was named as a defendant.
The Charleston-based environmental group had argued that the Corps of Engineers failed to adequately analyze all the environmental and traffic-related consequences when it issued the main permit for the new terminal planned for the former Navy base.
Efforts to reso lve the case through confidential, non-binding meditation concluded Monday. The terms include:
• The SPA will accommodate a gate entrance to the Navy base terminal if a third party develops a plan for an independent intermodal rail facility before Jan. 1, 2012. If a third party develops a plan after Jan. 1, 2012,the agency will accommodate a gate if the proposal fits with existing permits, and any revisions come at the third-party's expense.
• The SPA will work with state agencies and railroad companies to make good faith efforts to support an intermodal rail solution. SPA officials will meet with those groups within two months of this case's dismissal.
• The SPA will commission a survey to provide age, distribution and frequency of trucks calling its terminals within six months of the case's dismissal of case.
• The SPA will encourage a maritime subcommittee of the local Air Quality Coalition, and the League will participate in good faith.
• The SPA will ensure elimination of 85 percent of regularly calling trucks that pre-date 1994 by Jan. 1, 2014.
• The SPA will install monitors at the Wando Welch Terminal within nine months of this case's dismissal and maintain them for five years. The agency will install and maintain monitors at the Navy base terminal for five years after its operations begin. The SPA will make information from both projects available to the public online.
• The League will dismiss its federal case and not to pursue its appeal of state permits beyond the S.C. Supreme Court, where that case currently sits.
The Corps of Engineers gave the SPA the go-ahead for the long-delayed project in April 2007. It also approved an access road that would link the new terminal to U.S. Interstate 26.
The federal lawsuit, filed in November 2007, alleged that the permitting agency violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to assess all potential environmental effects;
"piece-mealing" its review of different aspects of the project; not fully considering reasonable alternatives; and not re-evaluating the project after new information came to light.
Work on the three-berth cargo terminal began in May 2007, and the first phase is expected to open around 2017, five years later than originally planned. Some of that delay is tied to the slowdown in shipping and the global economy.
Most of the arguments in the case center on proposed transportation projects tied to the new terminal. They include a $250 million access road linking the Navy base port with I-26 by way of an interchange near Exit 217. The new road would add about 10,000 vehicles a day to I-26, including about 7,000 truck trips, according to the complaint.
The league attorney has argued that an environmental impact study that the Corps of Engineers oversaw did not rigorously investigate the use of rail or look at the alternatives to handling port-related truck traffic.
The SPA has said its plans for the Navy base terminal were scrutinized for four years by numerous regulatory agencies at a cost of about $5 million.