Posted on Wed, Apr. 21, 2004
A Trojan horse wetlands bill moves forward
By CHRISTIE RENKEN
There is a bill moving fast in the S.C. House that is purported to protect isolated wetlands in this state. In actuality, it would eliminate any type of true protections for more than 75 percent of the state’s remaining isolated wetlands, including our nationally significant Carolina Bays. Citizens must tell their representatives to reject this Trojan Horse of a bill, parading as wetlands protection.
Wetlands are widely recognized as some of nature’s most valuable resources because they filter pollutants, prevent flooding, purify water and provide habitat to nearly half of the threatened and endangered species in the United States. Until 2001, isolated wetlands had protection under federal rules. That year, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling struck down these safeguards, leaving more than 350,000 acres of South Carolina’s isolated wetlands, including Carolina Bays, unprotected. This ruling did not declare isolated wetlands unworthy of protection, but instead placed this authority with the state.
Last year, a number of conservation groups petitioned the state Department of Health and Environmental Control to follow through with its obligation to develop regulations that would restore lost protections. This year-long stakeholder process had input from conservationists and development interests; the result was a compromise from both sides.
Now fast-forward to this legislative session, and suddenly there is another option being offered, under the guise of isolated wetlands protection. On Wednesday, a bill crafted by special interests who want to weaken wetland protections will be before the House for a vote. Sponsors and proponents of the bill claim that only activities in wetlands less than one acre are exempt from a permit and this is their “compromise.” Instead, the bill says: “Applicants are allowed to perform regulated activities in isolated wetlands of up to five contiguous acres. No permit or other department (DHEC) approval is required.”
So, a developer could fill isolated wetlands and bays 4.9 acres in size and not have to notify neighbors. No permit would be required. Although you may have to mitigate, it still leaves any Carolina Bay or other isolated wetland less than five acres — the size of five football fields — with virtually no protection. I believe when South Carolinians told their representatives they wanted wetlands protected, they did not mean to leave these important habitats out.
Scientists from around the world are amazed at these Carolina Bays, home to carnivorous plant species found nowhere else in the world. Recently the curator of Kew Gardens in England spent a day visiting them. In addition to their beauty and value as wildlife habitat, they save South Carolinians millions of dollars every year by filtering pollution and absorbing flood waters.
DHEC estimates that South Carolina’s isolated wetlands store about 45.8 billion gallons of water, which is enough to cover the Columbia metro area under 40 feet of water. In Sunday editions of The Sun News of Myrtle Beach, an amazing story ran about the neighbors being flooded because of wetlands destroyed when the Carolina Bays Parkway was built.
Legislators who want to restore protections have another option today. They can adopt the regulations developed over a year-long public process open to all stakeholders. Intended to do nothing more than restore protections formerly in place, these permitting guidelines are a true compromise. Conservationists are willing to live with this compromise as a first step toward getting back lost protections. Opponents, rather than explain their objections (as they have repeatedly been asked to do) fall back on one excuse — they question the state’s authority to enact the rules. Yet every single court to look at this issue has found the state clearly has the authority to protect these important habitats.
Preserving our quality of life, and the reasonable protection of our natural resources, is now recognized as key to continued economic development in South Carolina. It is in our self-interest, and in the interest of our children and grandchildren, to responsibly manage our most valuable assets, such as Carolina Bays. Legislators should reject the fatally flawed wetland bill and pass the compromise regulations.
Ms. Renken is legislative director for the Coastal Conservation League.