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Transportation: New study for river crossing gets funds

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

State highway commissioner Mike Wooten said he has the money to complete the environmental impact study for the Southern Evacuation Life Line, a road across the Waccamaw River in Horry County, but he will wait until permits are issued for Interstate 73 in order to thwart environmentalists.

“The S.E.L.L. project means more to us on the Waccamaw Neck than anything I’m working on,” Wooten, the District 7 commissioner, told members of the Georgetown County Republican Women’s Federation this week. “The good news is that I have about $5 million right now for the final environmental impact study. I have chosen not to trigger that because of a fear that my friends with the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League — and I say ‘friends’ very loosely — will try to tie that into the I-73 permit because eventually the two will connect. They did tie Highway 31 to the 707 permit, which delayed it for two years and cost taxpayers of Horry County $22 million.”

Wooten, an engineer, said he could do an environmental impact statement on the back of an envelope. “It’s choosing the route,” he said. “An environmental impact study protects the bugs and bunnies, wetlands and figures out the economic impact of everybody. At the end of the day, you come up with the same answer. You’ve got to do it to meet federal highway guidelines.”

Wooten said he is working on legislation in Columbia to “pull the fangs” of environmental groups that use state law to stop permits. “Nothing infuriates me more than environmental restrictions to major infrastructure projects that serve Americans,” he said. “When the Founding Fathers developed the Constitution they thought the federal government should be responsible for two main things: raising a standing army and interstate commerce. Why does permitting a major project take longer than building it? Right now, if you start out and had the mitigation done for I-73, permitting will take 14 years. It would take three years to build it.”

Wooten said a bill in the state Senate proposes eliminating the “automatic stay” that allows anyone to protest a permit application. “For a stamp and a $600 fee,” Wooten said, “you can object to any state permit without cause. DHEC stops dead in the water. You can’t get a federal permit without state certification. Environmental groups know what it costs a developer and the state to adjudicate a project.”

Nancy Cave, North Coast director for the Coastal Conservation League, said the proposal would eliminate an individual’s right to question state government directly. “The DHEC review program provides anybody the opportunity to question a permit decision,” Cave said. “This legislation blocks an individuals right to review and forces them to go directly to the Administrative Law Court and hire a lawyer.”

Wooten said Horry County’s RIDE III program will put $40 million into the Southern Evacuation Life Line that will widen and extend Holmestown Road across the Intracoastal Waterway to Highway 701. “If you build S.E.L.L. and I-73,” Wooten said, “it will reduce hurricane evacuation by 41 hours. Without those two, people are going to die if we get a Category 5 hurricane here. It’s a really big deal for all of us, and the Coastal Conservation League has vowed to fight it.”

Wooten said state environmental groups, including the Coastal Conservation League, the Southern Environmental Law Center, Sierra Club and League of Women Voters, agreed not to object to Interstate 73 if it connected with Highway 22 north of Conway and did not cross the Intracoastal Waterway. “I was in that room when that agreement was made,” Wooten said. “That was a disingenuous agreement. It was a lie, basically. Within another year, they were fighting I-73 tooth and nail.”

Wooten said Coastal Conservation League executive director Dana Beach forced his agenda on then-Gov. Mark Sanford over Boeing permits and Gov. Nikki Haley over permits to deepen Charleston Harbor. Wooten said the Boeing environmental impact study cost about $750,000, even though $5 million was budgeted. “According to sworn depositions,” Wooten said, “Dana Beach picked up the phone and called Mark Sanford and said, ‘Governor, that’s not enough. Spend the rest of that money the way we want or we will appeal the permit.’ Jump forward to four months ago. The governor paid Beach $5 million they can use for salaries, office equipment, whatever they want so they would not appeal the permit to deepen the port.”

Cave said money set aside as mitigation for the deepening of Charleston Harbor goes to the Lowcountry Open Land Trust for purchasing tracts along the Cooper River to help to improve water quality and ensure the preservation of freshwater wetlands.

Wooten said environmental groups had a purpose, like labor unions and the NAACP, when they began. “There was a need for environmental groups in the ’70s and ’80s because people were running rampant over the environment,” he said, “but state and federal agencies have gotten smarter and rules have gotten tighter. You don’t need these groups as watchdogs any more.”

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