COLUMBIA, SC (AP) State transportation officials have asked permission to fill 3 acres of wetlands along the route of a proposed bridge over Lake Marion.
The request will likely set off a major skirmish between proponents of the bridge and environmentalists, who said it will damage Sparkleberry Swamp, a 16,000-acre wetland at the north end of Lake Marion.
“We will do everything in our power to block this bridge from being built,” said Jane Lareau, who has tracked the project for the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League.
The biggest proponent of the bridge to connect the small towns of Lone Star and Rimini is U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-SC who said he will fight for the project.
“I’m prepared to wait it out,” Clyburn said. “I’m a very patient man.”
The bridge is a vital connection between Orangeburg and Sumter and would bring jobs to one of the poorest areas of the state, Clyburn said.
The dispute has gone on for years, but requesting a wetlands permit is an important step to starting construction.
The Department of Transportation has moved ahead with the project over the years because Clyburn keeps getting federal money. Clyburn estimated the government has earmarked more than $25 million for the bridge. The state figures it will cost $75 million to $100 million to build the 9-mi. bridge.
The permit request was filed Feb. 3 with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It would affect 15 acres of wetlands, with 3 acres being filled.
The corps will accept public comment until March 6 and will likely hold a public hearing before deciding whether to grant the permit, Spokeswoman Carol Weart said.
Environmental groups are gearing up for a fight. They said Sparkleberry Swamp is one of the few places in South Carolina free of noise from cars and airplanes.
In 2000, the Sierra Club named the swamp one of South Carolina’s most significant natural areas in need of protection.
“This will be one of the hardest-fought permit disputes this state has seen,” said David Farren, an attorney of the Southern Environmental Law Center. “I’ve not been involved in any project in South Carolina with more across-the-board interest from the environmental community.”
And it probably won’t end quickly.
Before construction of the bridge could begin, the transportation department would have to assure the project would not ruin water quality.
After that, Farren said conservation groups probably would appeal the decision to federal court, which could tie things up for several more years.
“I don’t think a permit will ever be issued for that bridge,” Farren said.