Rebutting all of the factual and legal misstatements in Congressman Rice’s piece of July 17 (and Department of Transportation Vice-Chair Mike Wooten’s related piece decrying citizens’ rights to participate in the decision-making process) would take a lot of time, but there are a few salient points that must be corrected.
First and foremost, it was Horry County that signed an agreement acknowledging that “improving the road will create a dangerous threat of harm to animals traversing the area, as well as a threat of harm to the traveling public due to collisions with animals.”
The County expressed that it is “especially concerned over the likelihood of collisions between motorists and black bears.”
As a result of these threats and concerns, Horry County contractually agreed to construct three passageways for animals to pass under International Drive, as well as fencing to guide bears to the passages and prevent them from entering the roadway. In fact, DDC Engineering - Wooten’s firm - gave two presentations to the county in 2010 stating that bear passageways would be included in the road project.
As of the date of this letter, the DDC documents are available at Ridingonapenny.com, accessed through the county’s website, which clearly shows that the project as proposed, voted upon, and approved by the taxpayers is a 2-lane project and that bear crossings and fencing were intended to be part of the design.
Unfortunately for the bears and the motorists that will hit them once the 60 mph, 4-lane road is paved, these requirements were deleted at Horry County’s request in 2013 in exchange for Horry County’s agreement to pay the Department of Natural Resources $122,210.00.
DNR caved first in granting the easement to allow paving and then in submitting to pressure from Horry County to eliminate the protective measures it had originally required in exchange for the easement.
Yet in a letter dated Feb. 11, 2014, the federal resource agency, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, still opines that the project “will impact fish and wildlife habitat, wetland functions, and water quality through increased disturbance, habitat fragmentation, increased wildlife mortality, . . . and loss of migration pathways.”
In order to avoid and minimize these impacts, the USFWS recommended that Horry County: “Abandon plans to increase the size of the road from 2 lanes to 4 lanes; Use the current road footprint to the maximum extent feasible; . . . It is essential that crossings for bears and other types of wildlife be implemented into the project to reduce habitat fragmentation and provide migration corridors.”
The Coastal Conservation League and the Wildlife Federation are simply asking Horry County to stick to its original promise to include the bear crossings – a request that is in alignment with not only the federal resource agency’s opinion and, at one point, DNR’s opinion.
When it comes to making decisions about measures needed to protect our environment, I would defer to the federal natural resource agency whose mission is to conserve, protect and enhance wildlife and their habitats over Horry County’s opinions any day.
Congressman Rice has apparently not even bothered to read the environmental groups’ request for DHEC Board review because nowhere do the groups ask that the road project be stopped in its tracks. They simply ask for the recommendations of the federal governmental agency charged with protecting our environment to be incorporated into the project – recommendations that Horry County promised to incorporate until it changed its mind, despite the fact that the tax approved to fund this and other projects has brought in far more revenue than anticipated, leaving the county with a surplus.
Finally, Rice and Wooten must share the same ghost writer because both pieces refer to a nonexistent group, the “Southern Environmental Law Project.” There are two public interest environmental law firms in this state; one is the South Carolina Environmental Law Project in Georgetown, and the other is the Southern Environmental Law Center in Charleston.
Evidently neither of these men even knows enough about the groups they are complaining of as “obstructionists” to get this simple fact straight. The reality is that Horry County has been the obstructionist in this case by promising and committing to incorporate protective measures into its road design and then reneging on its promise.
The 2010 and 2013 agreements and the USFWS 2014 letter are all available at www.scelp.org/stories.
The writer lives is with the S.C. Environmental Law Project.