Wetlands protection at stake in challenge to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

March 31, 2009
Based on federal protections under the Clean Water Act, the Southern Environmental Law Center and National Wildlife Federation today challenged a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers go-ahead to fill one of the largest remaining intact wetlands in an area near Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, within the Waccamaw River watershed...

CHARLESTON, SC, Mar. 24, 2009 -- Based on federal protections under the Clean Water Act, the Southern Environmental Law Center and National Wildlife Federation today challenged a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers go-ahead to fill one of the largest remaining intact wetlands in an area near Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, within the Waccamaw River watershed.

"What's at stake is protection for this wetland and thousands of acres of wetlands in South Carolina and throughout the United States," said Chris DeScherer, attorney, Southern Environmental Law Center. "If wetlands like this one are not protected, both South Carolina and the nation will continue to lose invaluable natural freshwater resources at staggering rates."

Recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings created confusion over which wetlands are protected by the federal Clean Water Act and, for many wetlands, essentially left it to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to decide the issue on a case-by-case basis. When the developer, Spectre, LLC proposed to fill the wetland in Horry County, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers declared the wetland "isolated" and therefore not subject to federal protections. An investigation by the public interest groups bringing suit indicates that the wetland qualifies for federal protection because it is connected with the Waccamaw River and provides significant benefits to the area, including flood storage, water purification, and habitat for wildlife and recreation.

"Like many wetlands around the country, this wetland is a vital part of our aquatic system," said Nancy Cave, office director of the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League's North Coast office. "It's interconnected with our waterways and culture and provides valuable protection to our communities in addition to its vital role as habitat for wildlife and recreation."

In addition to being a federal wetland, South Carolina law prohibits the discharge of pollutants to a wetland without a permit, and this lawsuit seeks to require the developer to apply for a permit before destroying the wetland. "When the federal government fails to protect wetlands and streams, the state of South Carolina must step up to the plate and protect its natural heritage," said Ben Gregg, executive director of the South Carolina Wildlife Federation.

Wetlands improve water quality, buffer storms, and act as freshwater reservoirs and habitat for fish, shellfish and migratory birds. When hurricanes batter the coast, wetlands are the first line of defense for communities. They absorb excess rainwater and filter runoff in downpours. When drought threatens, wetlands are important natural reservoirs. These benefits will be increasingly important for South Carolina as the climate changes and flooding events and storm surges likely increase in frequency and intensity. Yet, according to a recent report by two federal agencies, the nation's wetlands are disappearing at an alarming rate of about 360,000 coastal wetland acres per year in the eastern United States, due primarily to development.

In filing today's challenge in federal court the Southern Environmental Law Center represents the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League, the South Carolina Wildlife Federation, the National Wildlife Federation, and the Waccamaw Riverkeeper. National Wildlife Federation is serving as co-counsel on the case. The suit is filed against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and Spectre, LLC.

Statements from the other organizations involved in the challenge follow:

Waccamaw Riverkeeper: "The protection we largely take for granted under existing laws has been eroded and abandoned and, to make matters worse, federal agencies now decline to exercise their jurisdiction over many streams and wetlands that were once protected by the law," said Christine Ellis, Waccamaw Riverkeeper. "Citizens are forced to hold these agencies accountable to ensure that environmental protections are maintained."

National Wildlife Federation: "Especially in a warming world, wetlands are vital to wildlife and America's recreation economy," said Jim Murphy, attorney for the National Wildlife Federation. "It is vital that all important wetlands and waters be protected. Congress can ensure such safeguards by clarifying its intent to protect all important wetlands and waters and restoring the historic scope of Clean Water Act protections through legislation."

The same wetland is the subject of a pending appeal by the South Carolina Environmental Law Project before the South Carolina Supreme Court.

The South Carolina Coastal Conservation League is a grassroots non-profit conservation organization, founded in 1989 to protect the natural environment of the South Carolina coastal plain and to enhance the quality of life of our coastal communities. The League works with individuals, businesses, and government to ensure balanced solutions.

Founded in 1986, Southern Environmental Law Center is the only non-profit regional organization dedicated to protecting the native forests, wetlands, air and water quality, wildlife habitat and rural landscapes in Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. SELC works in partnership with more than 100 diverse groups on legal advocacy, policy reform and public education to achieve lasting environmental protections.

The South Carolina Wildlife Federation, SCWF, promotes effective habitat conservation and respect for outdoor traditions through statewide leadership, education, advocacy and partnerships. The Federation was formed in 1931, when a handful of sportsmen crisscrossed the state to recruit fellow outdoor enthusiasts. In just a few months, around 2,000 people joined as charter members.

National Wildlife Federation is America's conservation organization inspiring Americans to protect wildlife for our children's future.

The Waccamaw RIVERKEEPER® Program is a program of Winyah Rivers Foundation. Our mission is to protect, preserve, monitor and revitalize the health of the lands and waters of the greater Winyah Bay watershed. We are a grassroots organization, working locally to educate and advocate for protection of our watershed.

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