State court decision could delay recreational improvements

jmarks@lakewyliepilot.comDecember 19, 2012 

— A hailed victory for environmental groups also means a longer wait for recreational improvements along the Catawba River – including several in or near Lake Wylie.

The South Carolina Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday in favor of conservation groups and the state Department of Health and Environmental Control, which had challenged a previous ruling on how the state could protest Duke Energy’s federal hydroelectric license. Locally, the impact reaches beyond the water quality concerns tied into the legal opinions and appeals.

“We are evaluating our options for next steps and remain focused on resolving issues on the new Catawba-Wateree license so the entire 11-lake region can begin realizing the community benefits the new license will bring,” said Duke spokesperson Erin Culbert.

Duke manages the lakes along the Catawba River, including Wylie. As part of the company’s 2008 relicensing effort, improvements were negotiated among stakeholders from both Carolinas. Some, including drought response, shoreline management and recreation flows from dams, have been enacted despite relicensing hold-ups. Others haven’t.

On Lake Wylie and downstream, a finalized license will bring restrooms at Buster Boyd Access Area, 48 acres for an RV campground at Allison Creek Access Area, up to $435,000 for a new Mecklenburg County boat access, restrooms and trails at Fort Mill Access Area, leasable land for a riverfront park in Rock Hill and emergency access for York County, canoe/kayak access at Catawba Indian Reservation, Landsford Canal State Park and Dutchmans Creek in Mount Holly and camping, fishing, swimming and hiking at South Point Access Area in Belmont.

Some of those projects have been undertaken, but many haven’t.

Systemwide, Duke also will replace two hydro units with new, aerating units the company says will help better meet South Carolina water quality standards. The company will donate more than $4 million for recreational improvements, more than $3 million for habitat enhancement and more than $600,000 for cultural resource protection, while conveying more than 1,200 acres to North and South Carolina for public use or conservation.

Yet environmental groups say Wednesday’s decision protects water rights.

“This is an important decision for protecting and restoring the Catawba-Wateree River,” said Gerrit Jobsis, senior director for regional conservation for American Rivers. “The court has upheld South Carolina’s right to protect these important rivers.”

In August 2009, the Southern Environmental Law Center represented several groups in claiming Duke’s proposed license would lead to violations of South Carolina’s water quality standards. A state board ruled for the environmental groups. Duke then challenged that decision and an administrative law court ruled South Carolina had waived its right to issue or deny a key water quality certification by not acting in a timely manner. Wednesday’s decision reversed that finding.

The ruling dealt only with whether the state could input the relicensing process with the certification, Culbert said.

“It was not about whether the DHEC board was justified in denying the (certification) in 2009,” she said.

Frank Holleman, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, said Wednesday’s ruling protects South Carolina waters and interests along the Catawba.

“We are thankful the court rejected Duke’s argument that South Carolina had lost the right to protect its waters due to a technical snafu,” he said.

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