Conservation Groups Challenge Approval of Misleading Wetlands “Mitigation” Proposal
Conservation groups have gone to federal court to challenge the approval of a mitigation bank on 700 acres in the Lower Savannah River watershed. Publicly positioned as a wetlands restoration project, the company behind the mitigation bank is planning to remove existing dikes and water control structures designed to protect the area’s rare freshwater wetlands in order to convert it into a salt marsh.
Mitigation banking involves restoring, enhancing, or preserving a conservation area in order to offset harmful impacts to similar nearby ecosystems caused by development. The mitigation banker sells mitigation “credits” to other parties seeking federal permits for activities that will adversely affect aquatic resources. This can be a useful strategy to ensure protection of wetlands when impacts to these areas are unavoidable, but in this case, the Florida-based South Coast Mitigation Group plans to convert what has been a protected freshwater wetland for over 200 years into a saltwater wetland in order to sell mitigation credits. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has approved this as a “restoration” project, even though this area has never been a salt marsh, and despite the likelihood that it will result in a net loss of ecological benefits.
“This is a money-making operation masquerading as an environmental restoration project,” said Chris DeScherer, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “We’re talking about a swap, not a restoration, so it amounts to creative accounting for some of our state’s most valuable natural resources. It would undermine the successful history of wetlands restoration in the Lower Savannah River watershed as well as the very principles behind environmental mitigation.”
Acting on behalf of the Coastal Conservation League, today the Southern Environmental Law Center filed suit in the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina challenging the Army Corps of Engineers’ decision to authorize the Clydesdale Club Mitigation Bank through a Clean Water Act “Nationwide Permit” designed for projects with beneficial effects on the environment. The groups also filed a challenge in February 2013 of the corresponding state permit issued by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.
Managed freshwater wetlands are increasingly rare in coastal South Carolina and provide valuable habitat for fish and wildlife. As a result, this project has been strongly opposed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service, and the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.
“We’re concerned about the valuable wetlands area in question, but we’re also concerned about the broader precedent of this case, which raises critical questions about the proper implementation of wetlands mitigation rules,” said Dana Beach, executive director of the Coastal Conservation League. “We support legitimate ecological restoration, but this project would convert a rare and endangered ecosystem into one that is already abundant. Further, and incomprehensibly, it would utilize public dollars to destroy some of the very habitat in which public funds have been invested over the past few decades to maintain.”
The proposed site for the mitigation bank sits adjacent to the Savannah River National Wildlife Refuge on the South Carolina side of the Savannah River. This area, which historically was comprised of freshwater wetlands, was impounded more than 200 years ago for purposes of cultivating rice. Since the end of the rice era, it has been successfully managed as a freshwater wetland. The South Carolina coast is home to only about 76,000 acres of this type of wetland habitat.