SC Supreme Court tosses lawsuit seeking to block Charleston cruise ship operations

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COLUMBIA, S.C. – South Carolina’s highest court on Wednesday dismissed a lawsuit seeking to block cruise ship operations and plans to build a new $35 million terminal in Charleston, ruling that the environmental group and neighbourhood associations who sued did not have legal standing to challenge the proposal.

Groups including the Preservation Society of Charleston and South Carolina Coastal Conservation League filed a lawsuit two years ago, saying that the cruises subject residents in Charleston’s densely populated, historic downtown areas to nuisances including air pollution and traffic congestion.

There have been seasonal cruises from Charleston in years past. Things changed three years ago when Carnival permanently based its 2,000-passenger liner Fantasy in the city, creating a year-round cruise industry.

The city and the State Ports Authority intervened on behalf of Carnival and asked the Supreme Court to take original jurisdiction, saying the suit threatens the state’s maritime commerce and is a matter of statewide public interest. A special court-appointed referee recommended that some claims, like the contention that the ships violate state pollution law, be dropped, leaving claims over whether the ships are a nuisance.

During oral arguments in November, attorneys for the State Ports Authority said that restricting the cruise ships that call year-round at Charleston could be detrimental to the future both of South Carolina’s business climate and large-scale, downtown events. Environmental attorneys said that downtown residents are subjected to nuisances including air pollution, traffic congestion and obstructed views as a result of the ships’ presence.

But the justices said the groups’ arguments weren’t specific enough, dismissing the case Wednesday based on a lack of standing and saying that the damages alleged by the groups that sued are too general to be dealt with by the court system.

“All members of the public suffer from and are inconvenienced by traffic congestion, pollution, noises, and obstructed views, and Plaintiffs have not alleged they suffer these harms in any personal, individual way,” the court wrote. “Harms suffered by the public at large, like those Plaintiffs allege here, are to be remedied by the legislative and executive branches. If existing laws and regulations or their enforcement fail to protect the public from harm, it is incumbent upon the public to seek reform through their elected officials or failing that, at the ballot box.”

Blan Holman, an attorney for the environmental and neighbourhood groups, said his clients would review their options and that some individual property owners have expressed interest in refiling the nuisance case.

In a statement, State Ports Authority president Jim Newsome said he was pleased with the ruling and that officials would continue to move forward with their plans for expansion.

Other legal challenges to the plans are still pending. Earlier this month, the State Ports Authority and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dropped appeals of a federal judge’s decision overturning a permit for the planned cruise terminal. They had been challenging U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel’s ruling that the Corps didn’t adequately review the terminal’s effects on the city’s Historic District, sending it back for further governmental review.

Later this year, Chief Administrative Law Judge Ralph K. Anderson III takes up the matter of a challenge to pilings permit approved by the Department of Health and Environmental Control in 2012. Officials noted that the warehouse area has been an industrial and commercial area for centuries and putting in the five pilings for the terminal alone does not allow bigger ships or more ships.

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Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP

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