Court orders removal of seawalls to protect rare turtles

Sea turtle tracks lead to plastic seawalls on South Carolina beach
Sea turtle tracks lead to plastic seawalls on South Carolina beach

A federal judge has ordered the removal of seawalls on two stretches of South Carolina’s coast to protect rare turtles that are having difficulty nesting when they run into the plastic structures.

Monday’s ruling by U.S. District Judge David Norton is a victory for conservation groups that fought a state decision to allow the experimental plastic walls at Harbor Island in Beaufort County and the Isle of Palms in Charleston County. Monday’s decision requires the walls to come down pending a federal court case that has not yet been resolved.

In dispute are a series of seawalls that were approved by the Legislature several years ago.

The experimental walls, developed through research at The Citadel, are supposed to protect valuable oceanfront hotels, homes and condominium buildings without eroding beaches or hurting sea turtles that nest on beaches. Unlike traditional concrete or rock seawalls, the Harbor Island and Isle of Palms walls are made of plastic with slats in them and are supposed to be easy to remove.

But the walls were not taken down during sea turtle nesting season. Evidence suggests they are hurting sea turtles by blocking the reptiles’ access to nesting sites – as well as contributing to beach erosion, environmentalists contend.

“This is a big win for us,” said Amelia Thompson, an attorney with the S.C. Environmental Law Project in Pawleys Island.

It was not clear when the seawalls would have to be removed. The order says they must “remain removed” during sea turtle nesting season. The nesting season begins in May and extends into August. A spokeswoman for the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control said the agency is “carefully reviewing’’ the judge’s order.

Beach erosion is a major issue as sea level rises. Homes, businesses and other structures built too close to the beach are vulnerable to damage from the ocean. Seawalls help protect property. At Harbor Island and Wild Dunes on the Isle of Palms, property owners are battling erosion and say the walls help protect their investments.

The judge’s order, however, says the walls appear to be hurting sea turtles, which is illegal under the federal Endangered Species Act. The judge said the Sierra Club and the S.C. Wildlife Federation, which filed suit to force the removal of the walls, appear to have strong enough arguments to win the case when it gets to trial.