By Seanna Adcox
COLUMBIA, SC (AP) Environmental groups in South Carolina filed a federal lawsuit Sept. 12 to stop what they call senseless construction of a $150-million road and bridge project over Lake Marion.
Rep. Jim Clyburn has long advocated the project, saying it would help bring economic development to the rural, low-income area and reunite communities split by the lake’s creation decades ago.
“The people I represent tell me this is what they need. This is what they want,” Clyburn, D-SC, said in a phone interview. “This project has been important to them for decades.”
He called it one piece of an economic-boosting puzzle that includes a regional water system, the area’s scenic beauty, and an inland port.
But environmentalists and Republican leaders call the bridge an unneeded project that would destroy wetlands and disturb wildlife habitats for no clear economic gain.
“This project makes no sense,” said David Farren, attorney of the Southern Environmental Law Center, which is representing the Wildlife Federation, Coastal Conservation League and Audubon groups of South Carolina.
The lawsuit claims the state Transportation Department wrote a flawed environmental impact report that ignored data showing the project would lose money and concerns about the surrounding natural areas. The suit also names the Federal Highway Administration, which oversaw the study and authorized construction.
Clyburn said the report shows the project won’t harm the environment, and the plaintiffs just won’t accept that. “They already have a preconceived notion about this and no amount of facts would in any way get in the way of those,” he said.
The lawsuit hopes to halt the permitting process of a 7-mi. (11.3 km) road and 3-mi. (4.8 km) bridge linking Lone Star in Calhoun County to Rimini in Sumter County.
“The bottom line is, SCDOT is pushing a wasteful construction project while turning a blind eye to the project’s true cost,” said law center attorney Blan Holman.
An updated estimate puts the project at $150 million. Congress has designated approximately $25 million so far, according to the state Transportation Department. Spokesman Pete Poore said the agency does not comment on pending litigation. A Federal Highway Administration spokeswoman also said her agency didn’t comment on pending lawsuits.
Last December, the Transportation Department sought a permit to fill, excavate or clear 15 acres of wetlands for the project. During the public comment period in February and March, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers received more than 700 letters with 90 percent of them opposing construction, said Richard Darden, the Corps’ project manager.
The Corps also received petitions with 750 signatures against and 1,500 for the project, he said. Clyburn said the petition signed by people who live in the area should be given more weight.
The state Transportation Department is reviewing the public comments. The Corps is awaiting its response and seeking more information before deciding whether to grant or deny the permit. There is no timetable for a decision, Darden said.
The connector would degrade what Holman called the “crown jewel of central South Carolina.” Areas surrounding the proposed bridge include the Congaree National Park, Manchester State Forest and the Santee National Wildlife Refuge.
Approximately 80 percent of the project’s estimated cost would come from the federal government, Farren said, who along with Holman, added the money would be better spent on transportation projects elsewhere in the area.
Gov. Mark Sanford, a Republican who has long said the project was fiscally irresponsible, applauded the groups’ efforts.
“We just don’t think it makes sense to spend upwards of $100 million on a project through pristine wetlands when there’s a perfectly good bridge down the road, and one even closer in need of repair,” said Sanford spokesman Joel Sawyer, referring to Interstate 95 and state Highway 601.