Justia Environmental Law Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in South Carolina Supreme Court
Preservation Society v. SCDHEC
Petitioners, consisting of several citizens groups and neighborhood associations, sought a contested case hearing in the administrative law court (ALC) to challenge the propriety of state environmental authorizations issued by the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) for a project relocating and expanding the passenger cruise facility at the Union Pier Terminal (the Terminal) in downtown Charleston. Petitioners contended they had standing to seek this hearing as "affected persons" under section 44-1- 60(G) of the South Carolina Code (2018). The ALC concluded Petitioners did not have standing and granted summary judgment to Respondents. The ALC terminated discovery and also sanctioned Petitioners for requesting a remand to the DHEC Board. The court of appeals affirmed. The South Carolina Supreme Court, however, concluded Petitioners did have standing, and thus reversed the grant of summary judgment and remanded the matter to the ALC for a contested case hearing. View "Preservation Society v. SCDHEC" on Justia Law
Sierra Club v. SCDHEC
This matter stemmed from the administrative law court's (ALC) decision to uphold the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control's (DHEC) renewal of the license under which Chem-Nuclear Systems, LLC (Chem-Nuclear) operated a disposal facility for low-level radioactive waste. Sierra Club appealed the ALC's decision, and the court of appeals affirmed the ALC as to all issues, except as to four subsections of the regulation governing DHEC's issuance and renewal of such licenses. The South Carolina Supreme Court granted Chem-Nuclear's petition for a writ of certiorari to review the court of appeals' decision. Although DHEC did not file a petition for a writ of certiorari, DHEC submitted a respondent's brief in the matter agreeing with Chem-Nuclear's arguments and expanding on certain issues raised by Chem-Nuclear. The Supreme Court affirmed the court of appeals' conclusion that Chem-Nuclear had notdemonstrated compliance with certain regulations. However, the Court modified the court of appeals' opinion to the extent it could be read to (1) mandate what specific actions must be taken in accomplishing the technical requirements of the applicable statutes and (2) completely ignore the concept of “as low as reasonably achievable” when Chem-Nuclear took direct action to satisfy the law’s technical requirements. Upon remand to DHEC, there would be no limitations to the record, and Chem-Nuclear would be free to introduce any additional actions it has taken to conform to the requirements of the regulations. In the event of an appeal to the ALC, the ALC could conduct its proceedings with no limitations from the Supreme Court on the evidence it could consider. The Supreme Court reversed the court of appeals' conclusion that ChemNuclear was noncompliant with certain aspects of the law. View "Sierra Club v. SCDHEC" on Justia Law
Jowers v. SCDHEC
The Surface Water Withdrawal, Permitting, Use, and Reporting Act regulated surface water withdrawals in South Carolina. Surface water is defined as "all water that is wholly or partially within the State . . . or within its jurisdiction, which is open to the atmosphere and subject to surface runoff, including, but not limited to, lakes, streams, ponds, rivers, creeks, runs, springs, and reservoirs . . . ." Agricultural users are treated differently under the Act. Plaintiffs jointly filed this action against DHEC in Barnwell County, challenging the Act's registration system for agricultural users, contending, amongst other things, that the Act’s provisions were an unconstitutional taking, a violation of due process, and a violation of the public trust doctrine. The circuit court granted summary judgment against the plaintiffs on the grounds the case did not present a justiciable controversy, both because the plaintiffs lacked standing and the dispute was not ripe for judicial determination. Finding no reversible error with that holding, the South Carolina Supreme Court affirmed. View "Jowers v. SCDHEC" on Justia Law
Hueble v. SCDNR
In 2003, William Hueble purchased 220 acres of farming and hunting property in Greenwood County. At the time of closing, the seller informed Hueble that Respondent Eric Vaughn, a corporal for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (DNR), had a personal deer stand on the property and had hunted there in the past. The seller indicated it would be a "good idea" to allow Vaughn continued access. Hueble declined the suggestion. During 2004, Hueble received a call from the seller informing him that Vaughn had recently been on the property and left four wheeler tracks. The seller again suggested that it would be in Hueble's "best interest" to allow Vaughn to hunt on the property, and provided Vaughn's phone number to Hueble. Hueble once again declined the suggestion and did not contact Vaughn. Hueble then acquired additional land and invested substantial sums of money to improve and maintain his property for hunting dove. More than one month prior to the opening day of dove season, Hueble believed the field was non-baited and in compliance with all regulations and guidelines. On opening day, Hueble's friends and family joined him for the first hunt of the season. Shortly into the hunt, Vaughn and other DNR officers entered Hueble's property unannounced. Vaughn and the DNR officers gathered the hunters together and began threatening them with fines and confiscation of property for baiting the dove field. Vaughn dug into Hueble's property with a knife blade to produce seeds and claimed that one seed constituted baiting a field. During this interaction, Hueble learned Vaughn was the DNR officer the seller had mentioned. Ultimately, Hueble was the only hunter charged by DNR with baiting the field. Hueble ultimately pled no contest to the baiting charge, believing this would resolve Vaughn's animosity. Hueble was accused of baiting at the start of turkey season too. Based on these encounters with Vaughn, Hueble believed that Vaughn had a "vendetta" against him and that Vaughn's supervisor was fully aware of the alleged threats he was making against Hueble. Because of these concerns, Hueble initiated a complaint with Vaughn's supervisor at DNR. However, the supervisor responded with allegations of Hueble's illegal activity based upon Vaughn's version of the events. Hueble filed a complaint against DNR and Vaughn. He obtained a Rule 68, SCRCP, judgment of $5,100 in his favor at the close of litigation. The issue this case presented for the Supreme Court's review was whether Hueble was a prevailing party within the meaning of the Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. 1988 (2006), and was therefore entitled to attorneys' fees. The Court held that he was, and reversed the lower courts' holdings to the contrary, and remanded the case for further proceedings. View "Hueble v. SCDNR" on Justia Law
Kiawah Development v. SCDHEC
The issue before the Supreme Court in this case arose from an administrative law court's (ALC) decision authorizing Respondent Kiawah Development Partners to construct a bulkhead and revetment on Captain Sam's Spit (the Spit) on Kiawah Island. In 1999, the Office of Coastal Resource Management (OCRM) established a baseline and building set back line twenty feet landward based on information that the Spit had accreted, and had not been subject to any significant, measurable erosion between 1959 and 1999. The movement of the baseline prompted Respondent to consider development of the Spit. On February 29, 2008, Respondent submitted an application to DHEC for a permit to construct a combination bulkhead and revetment in the area. On December 18, 2008, DHEC issued a conditional permit approving the construction of the erosion control structure for a distance of 270 feet. DHEC refused the permit request for a remaining 2,513 feet based on its concerns regarding cumulative negative impacts, including interference with natural inlet formation and possible adverse effects on wintering piping plovers. DHEC also determined that the project was contrary to the policies set forth in the Coastal Zone Management Program (CZMP). Respondent requested a final review conference by the DHEC Board, but the Board declined to hold a review conference. Respondent then requested a contested case hearing before the ALC, and challenged the denial of the construction of a bulkhead and revetment along the remaining 2,513 feet. The Coastal Conservation League (CCL) opposed the construction of any bulkhead or revetment on the Spit, and also requested a contested case hearing challenging the decision to authorize the 270 foot structure, but supporting denial of the remainder. The cases were consolidated. The ALC granted Respondent's permit to construct the bulkhead and revetment, subject to certain conditions reducing and altering its size. DHEC and CCL (collectively, Appellants) appealed the ALC's order. The Supreme Court reversed the ALC and remanded the issue in a decision published in late 2011. The Court subsequently granted Respondent's petition for rehearing, and accepted an amicus brief from the Savannah River Maritime Commission (the SRMC). The Court then withdrew its initial opinion, and issue this opinion, affirmed the decision of the ALC. "The essence of Appellants' argument is rooted in dissatisfaction with the verbiage and structure of the ALC's order, and not in actual errors of law or the absence of substantial evidence. The ALC acted within the permissible scope of its authority in modifying the existing permit to include a structure no larger than that requested by Respondent or initially reviewed by DHEC. On appeal of a contested case, we must affirm the ALC if the findings are supported by substantial evidence." View "Kiawah Development v. SCDHEC" on Justia Law
Savannah Riverkeeper v. SCDHEC
Petitioners Savannah Riverkeeper, South Carolina Coastal Conservation League, South Carolina Wildlife Federation, and Conservation Voters of South Carolina (collectively, Conservation Groups) petitioned the Supreme Court Court to hear this matter in its original jurisdiction to determine whether the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) acted illegally and usurped the authority of the Savannah River Maritime Commission (the Commission) when it negotiated an agreement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (the Corps) and the Georgia Ports Authority (GPA) before issuing a 401 Water Quality Certification (the Certification or the 401 Certification) requested for the proposed Savannah Harbor Expansion Project (SHEP). The Court granted the petition. Upon review, the Supreme Court found that DHEC's action contravened the plain language of S.C. Code Ann. section 54-6-10 (2007). View "Savannah Riverkeeper v. SCDHEC" on Justia Law
Yelsen Land Company v. South Carolina
In 1969, the State sued Appellant Yelsen Land Company alleging that the State owned "all tidelands, submerged lands, and waters" adjacent to Morris Island. Appellant answered and claimed it owned all the tidelands, submerged lands, and marshes adjacent to Morris Island. Appellant also counterclaimed for trespass on those lands by the Corps of Engineers in the form of spoilage dredged from Charleston Harbor, the digging of a ditch, and the erection of a dike. In the first appeal, the Supreme Court held that the legal questions of title to the land should be tried to a jury and that the trial judge erred in denying the State a jury trial. The jury returned a general verdict for the State, having been charged that title to tidelands, submerged lands, and all land below the high water mark on navigable streams were presumptively the State's unless the entity claiming title can show a specific grant from the sovereign that included the words "to the low water mark." It was also charged that it was to determine title to marshlands and to return damages for appellant if it found the State had trespassed on marshland owned by appellant or if it found a taking. Following the jury verdict, Appellant moved for a judgment non obstante verdicto and a new trial, both of which the trial judge denied in a written order. In 2007, Appellant brought this suit against the State contending that the dredging spoils placed in the tidelands had created new highlands, and that as the adjacent highland owner, it was the owner of the newly “accreted” highlands as well. The State Ports Authority (SPA) sought to intervene, but in lieu of intervention, Appellant was permitted to amend its complaint to add the SPA. A Master granted the State and the SPA summary judgment, and Appellant appealed. The Supreme Court affirmed, finding res judicata applied to bar Appellant's attempt to relitigate title to the property. View "Yelsen Land Company v. South Carolina" on Justia Law
Murphy v. SCDHEC
This issue in this case centered on proposed renovations to the overcrowded Chapin High School, which required filling in a portion of a stream on its property. District 5 of Lexington and Richland Counties received a water quality certification (WQC) from the Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC), authorizing the project and allowing the District to fill the approved portion of the stream. The Administrative Law Court (ALC) affirmed the certification, and Appellant Kim Murphy appealed, arguing the ALC erred in determining that the vicinity of the project included the area surrounding the proposed fill, failied to find that the project would damage the surrounding ecosystem, and found no feasible alternatives to the proposed project. She also alleged DHEC impermissibly abdicated its decision-making authority to the District. Upon review, the Supreme Court found no error in the ALC's analysis or in DHEC's evaluation of the project and accordingly affirmed those decisions. View "Murphy v. SCDHEC" on Justia Law
Kiawah Development v. So. Car. Dept. of Health & Environ. Cont.
The South Carolina Coastal Conservation League (League) and the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) appealed an administrative law judge's (ALJ) order that allowed Respondent Kiawah Development Partners to construct erosion control devices in a critical zone on Captain Sam's Spit (Spit). Respondent owend a peninsula (Spit) which lies primarily south of Kiawah Island, surrounded on three sides by the Atlantic Ocean, Kiawah River and Captain Sam's Inlet which separates the Spit from Seabrook Island. For the past sixty years, the Spit has been "growing," accreting sand on the ocean side at a greater rate than it has been losing ground to erosion on the river side. Respondent leased oceanfront property near the neck to the Charleston County Parks and Recreation Commission, which operates Beachwalker Park there. Respondent sought a permit from DHEC to erect a 2,783 foot bulkhead/revetment combination along the Kiawah River, with the structure to begin at the neck, that is, at Beachwalker Park. DHEC authorized construction of the proposed erosion control device for 270 feet, beginning at Beachwalker Park, and denied the remaining portion of the request. Both the League and Respondent requested a contested case hearing before the ALJ, the League to protest the portion of the permit request which was granted, and Respondent to challenge the portion denied. The Appellants contended the ALJ failed to give the deference due DHEC's interpretation of the statutes and regulations, and further that he exceeded his authority in rewriting the permit, resulting in one with terms neither approved by DHEC nor sought by Respondent. Upon review of the ALJ's ruling and the applicable legal standards, the Supreme Court reversed and remanded, finding the ALJ's decision was "affected by numerous errors of law … beginning with the ALJ's misunderstanding of the applicable statutes, regulations, and public policies, and concluding with his erroneous effort to craft a new permit, one which has never been sought by respondent, nor reviewed by OCRM, and which he, in any case, lack[ed] the authority to issue."
Georgetown County League of Women Voters v. Smith Land Co.
Appellant Georgetown County League of Women Voters appealed an order that dismissed its action that sought a declaration that Respondent Smith Land Company had unlawfully filled wetlands and dismissed its request for an injunction requiring Smith to restore those wetlands. Respondent owns a .332 acre lot in Pawleys Island, .19 acres of which are isolated wetlands often referred to as Carolina Bays. Before developing the lot, Respondent notified both the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) of its plans. While the Corps cautioned respondent to notify DHEC before performing the work and respondent did so, it received no response from DHEC. Respondent then filled the wetlands. The League then filed suit seeking a declaratory judgment and related equitable relief. After a hearing, the circuit court held that DHEC did not have jurisdiction over isolated wetlands, that Respondent complied with all requirements before filling the wetlands, and that the League could not maintain a private suit under the South Carolina Pollution Control Act. Finding that the circuit court erred in holding that: (1) the DHEC lacked jurisdiction to regulate the wetlands; (2) Respondent did not violate the Act; and (3) the Act does not create a private cause of action, the Supreme Court reversed the reversed the case and remanded the case for further proceedings.