Federal Judge Tosses South Carolina Cruise Ship Terminal Permit

Lipcon, Marguiles, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A

Charleston, NCOften, the mighty cruise industry is given the benefit of the doubt, especially when it comes to granting a company permission to build a terminal. Cities tend to overlook all the negatives that may arise during the construction of a new terminal as well as the impact on the environment and residents after the completion of the project, but due to the profit that cruise tourism can bring in, city and state governments tend to look the other way, shrugging off the side effects for the greater monetary good.

Back in December, Charleston, South Carolina was considering all the benefits of building a new $35 million cruise ship terminal and even obtained a permit from state environmental regulators at the Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management. Everything was going according to plan, and the state Port Authority couldn’t wait to start construction.  Even the Ports Authority and Charleston officials came to an agreement to limit the number of port calls to 104 per year. Seemed reasonable enough (to those who stood to profit), but not to a federal judge.

In a move that no one saw coming, U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel voided a federal permit that had been issued for the Charleston cruise terminal by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers yesterday on the grounds that the organization failed to consider the impact the project could potentially have on the environment, much to the chagrin of the Ports Authority and city government.

Meanwhile, environmental groups who argued that the cruise terminal could have a detrimental impact on Charleston’s historic district, which was designated a National Historic Landmark District in 1960, are rejoicing over the judge’s decision. The groups, led by the Southern Environmental Law Center, collectively filed a lawsuit last year to put a stop to the project on the grounds that a terminal would create hazardous conditions for the city, including pollution and noise.

But perhaps the turning point in the lawsuit was the fact that the groups alleged the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers did not fully list the potential impact of the project when issuing the permit, nor did it allow the public to voice their opinions. The suit also alleged the terminal had been listed as a “maintenance” project, downplaying the full scope and extent of its impact.

The ruling is a monumental victory for environmental agencies arguing the harmful potential of cruise terminals not just in Charleston, but around the country and entire world. For years, environmental and preservation groups have been arguing against the development of new terminals – as well as in favor of shutting down existing terminals – over the harmful impact cruise lines can have on an area. Activists in Venice, Italy have been expressing their disapproval of large cruise ships, claiming they destroy the lagoon city’s fragile ecosystem.

Here in the U.S., activists in Savannah, GA also argued against the development of a potential cruise terminal, but officials decided to scrap the project.

The increased number of cruise ship accidents has affected several city governments’ decisions to  both keep and create terminals. Miami and Fort Lauderdale continue to lead the way in revenue for the industry, and many smaller ports are unable to compete or invest in the millions it takes to maintain and build new terminals. Since the year 2000, five cruise terminals in the U.S. have either struggled to amass enough revenue to stay in business or have already closed. Cruise lines also take note of the revenue a terminal can bring in. In such a money-driven industry, if cruise lines don’t see enough of a profit at a particular terminal, chances are they will take their ships elsewhere.

But South Carolina’s Ports Authority isn’t giving up just yet. Officials say they will continue to work with the Corps of Engineers to make the necessary changes in order to move forward with the terminal.  Charleston’s port is already the fourth-busiest shipping port in the U.S. and has been the homeport of the Carnival Fantasy since 2010. However, there are several issues the Ports Authority may not be taking into account. First of all, there weren’t any cruise ships docking in Charleston prior to the Fantasy, which means Charleston was never a popular cruise tourist spot to begin with, and second, just because a port is successful in the shipping industry doesn’t mean it will be equally successful in the cruise industry.

It’s important to take all these factors into consideration when determining whether or not a new cruise terminal should be developed.  Safety must also be at the top of the Ports Authority’s radar, given the increase in cruise ship accidents since the Costa Concordia capsizing tragedy in January, 2012.

Each maritime lawyer here at Lipcon, Margulies, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A. knows that cruise travel can be a lot of fun and is extremely popular, but there is always a dark side to the industry that not many people are aware of. Keeping a community informed over all the potential effects of a new terminal – good AND bad – is essential to maintaining a positive dynamic amongst residents and to limit the negative impact the cruise industry can have on the environment and on city life.