inches forward precariously
SC Statehouse Report
OCT. 19, 2003 - - Spurred to action by conservationists, state
officials are developing regulations to shield isolated freshwater
wetlands stripped of protection by a January 2001 U.S. Supreme Court
the action could be just a prelude to a long fight in the General
"All parties have basically agreed that this is needed, but,
of course, the devil is in the details," said Chris Brooks,
deputy commissioner of the state Department of Health and Environmental
When the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that isolated wetlands were no
longer protected by the federal Clean Water Act, it essentially
made it easier for people to develop thousands of acres of South
Carolina's fragile, ecologically-important wetlands that often are
not directly connected to ground-level streams or lakes.
These wetlands - - things like Carolina bays and bogs - - function
as seasonal wet areas with fluctuating water tables. They are crucial
natural sponges that provide water filtration, storage and recharge
functions to the state's water supply.
Since the Court's decision, there has been a lot of confusion about
how to deal with isolated freshwater wetlands. States have been
waiting for the federal government to set guidelines, which haven't
yet come. So states are finding they need to set standards for them
to keep water clean and to protect sensitive areas.
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Earlier this month in response to a lawsuit threatened by conservation
groups, the state DHEC board voted to have state regulators develop
proposed regulations to return the protection of freshwater wetlands
to the process of what was going on here before the Supreme Court
decision. Those regulations likely will be presented to state lawmakers
"Industry really has no right to scream about this because
we were under these regulations for 30 years - - and development
didn't stop," said Nancy Vinson of the S.C. Coastal Conservation
League. "We see it as very important and very reasonable to
restore what was lost."
She and others emphasized proposed regulations would not cause
developers to jump through more hurdles than they did before the
Court decision. Instead, they would return to a status quo in which
there was certainty in the process - - not the threat of lawsuits
and other interruptions.
DHEC's proposed regulations likely will require developers to apply
and receive water quality permits before freshwater wetlands could
be filled in for development. Brooks said the average permitting
process time would take about 90 days.
In general, it's easier for regulations to get passed by the General
Assembly than it is to get free-standing legislation approved. When
DHEC submits regulations, lawmakers can approve, reject or ask the
agency to modify them. With regulations, lawmakers don't make amendments
But what may happen with a controversial issue such as protecting
freshwater wetlands is the tougher process involving legislation.
Some pro-development forces prefer using legislation as the vehicle
on freshwater wetlands because they would have a voice in the process
at committee meetings, mark-ups and more. They would be able to
lobby for what they wanted and wouldn't have regulations thrust
upon them. In other words, they'd potentially be able to weaken
the permitting process through politics if legislation were used
instead of regulations.
Some are optimistic that lawmakers will at least consider doing
something to protect freshwater wetlands after almost three years
of inaction. A legislative attempt to do something two years ago
Others aren't quite as optimistic. A vote this month by the Council
on Coastal Futures indicated developers would push hard for a legislative
solution. In that vote, the council - - a balanced group of development
and conservation interests looking at a long-term plan for the coast
- - voted unanimously for the state to "to develop statewide
comprehensive legislation that codifies historical freshwater wetland
management standard operating procedures including wetland master
planning, aesthetics, and education."
Translated: That means they want political legislation, not agency
regulations, to take care of the issue.
With the state budget and economy still in a mess, a legislative
attempt has much less of a chance of approval next year. And that
would keep freshwater wetlands still at great risk.
A frightening possibility
This week's cartoon by our Bill McLemore: