Group Files Lawsuit Against Carnival, SC Ports Authority Calls it Frivolous

Sometimes, cruise industry supporters and local historic and environmental preservation activists just don't see eye-to-eye. It's happened in the past in Key West, FL; several West Coast ports; and such international destinations as Bermuda and Grand Cayman. Over the past year or so, it's also happened in Charleston, SC.

In legal action today, the Southern Environmental Law Center, acting on behalf of several local citizens groups, filed a lawsuit against Carnival Cruise Lines in South Carolina's state court.

The lawsuit contends that large cruise ship operations in Charleston, SC's historic district--including Carnival's home porting of Carnival Fantasy there year-round--run afoul of local zoning ordinances, snarl traffic by closing downtown streets and violate state environmental permitting laws.

When asked for a response to the charges, Carnival referred to the South Carolina State Ports Authority, which operates the Port of Charleston and other ports in the state.  Both a port press statement and a statement by its chairman strongly object to the lawsuit, calling the charges frivolous and a detriment to international commerce.

The following analysis takes a look at the views of both sides. 

Southern Environmental Law Center: “These laws were put in place to balance economic development, historic conservation and a healthy environment,” said Blan Holman, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “People simply want to see Carnival play by the rules just like everyone else so that an uncontrolled cruise industry doesn’t swamp Charleston’s health and heritage. Charleston relies on a careful balance between tourism and preservation that cruise ship interests shouldn’t overwhelm.”

Commenting on the lawsuit, “right now we have too much gridlock and pollution because the cruise industry based a giant ship right next to our small historic residential neighborhoods,” said Carrie Agnew, a member of the Historic Ansonborough Neighborhood Association. “When we asked for enforceable limits, we were told that cruise operations were beyond local law, even though Charleston has regulated port terminals in the past.  In order to stand up for Charleston, the only option we had left was court."

The lawsuit says that prior to 2008, there were no home ported vessels year-round in Charleston. It also says cruise ship visits have grown from 33 dockings in 2009, to 67 in 2010, to 90 scheduled for this year, two thirds of them related to the Carnival Fantasy's operation. The lawsuit also specifies that two public streets in the downtown historic district are closed on embarkation and disembarkation days because of the influx of cars and trucks.

“Cramming a giant cruise operation into a small historic area with zero enforceable limits is not the way to protect citizens and the economy,” said Randy Pelzer, a member of the Charlestowne Neighborhood Association, another plaintiff in the lawsuit. In addition to asserting that cruise operations violate local ordinances governing industries and structures in the historic district, the lawsuit contends Carnival is discharging from the Fantasy into South Carolina waters without permits required by state pollution control laws. 

Beyond the two neighborhood associations mentioned above, other groups involved in the lawsuit include the Preservation Society of Charleston and S.C. Coastal Conservation League. The groups say having enforceable standards in place is especially important given that a new cruise terminal is being contemplating in Charleston.

“The cruise industry is growing quickly here and around the globe,” said Holman.  “The best time to make sure reasonable limits are in place and prevent problems experienced by other communities is at the start.”  

South Carolina State Ports Authority: In a press statement headlined "Unfair Suit Against Carnival," the ports authority said: "We believe this suit is frivolous and is intended to harass Carnival in hopes they will leave Charleston rather than endure further public attacks by this element of Charleston’s population. We also believe that the suit will inevitably fail on its complete lack of merit. "
The authority also said in its statement that the environmental group is using Carnival to strike out at the South Carolina Ports Authority and the City of Charleston.  "Carnival not only complies with all applicable laws and regulations but, in many cases, exceeds those requirements," the statement said. "The South Carolina Ports Authority is directed by state law to enhance and increase waterborne commerce through the harbors and seaports of our state, including Charleston harbor."

The ports authority said it is compelled to take all legal steps necessary "to hasten the failure and end of this lawsuit in the shortest possible time." It called the suit a step to limit the state's ability to conduct international commerce, saying it won't let that happen. "Its premise denies this city’s 341-year-old maritime history," the authority statement said.

A separate statement by Bill Stern, the port authority's chairman, called the lawsuit "irresponsible," noting it was an assault on jobs and economic growth statewide. "The special interests behind this lawsuit are clearly attempting to harass port customers," Stern said, noting "their goal is to cripple our port system to satisfy their anti-growth agenda.  First it's cruise ships, then cargo ships.  Next it will be trucks and rails...It's time for people of goodwill to stand against this narrow-minded band of radicals and their frivolous, irresponsible lawsuits.”

In addition, a port official later told that "the community" has already hosted a response press conference with several dozen people speaking in support of Carnival, the cruise industry and the port. Speakers included Charleston Mayor Joe Riley; Port Board Vice Chair John Hassell; Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce President Bryan Derreberry; International Longshoremen's Association #1422 President Ken Riley; and S.C. State Representatives Jim Merrill and Leon Stavrinakis, along with two neighborhood association representatives.  Hospitality interests also showed up to support.

It was announced at this event that the City of Charleston will seek to intervene on behalf of Carnival. The ILA will also meet to tonight to vote on joining that effort, and the port official said the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce is considering the same action.