NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) -- South Carolina environmental regulators on Tuesday issued a needed permit for a $35 million cruise passenger terminal in Charleston saying allowing the terminal doesn't change what is happening on the waterfront of a city that has had a port for centuries.
The Department of Health and Environmental Control's Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management issued the permit allowing the South Carolina State Ports Authority to drive pilings beneath an old riverfront warehouse for the new terminal.
There has been debate over the city's growing cruise industry for several years and two public hearings on the permit earlier this year drew hundreds of people. The controversy has sparked lawsuits in both state and federal court.
"We all have our personal beliefs and perceptions about what we wish were the case," DHEC director Catherine Templeton told The Associated Press. "But at the end of the day, our commitment is to look at what the law requires. And at the end of the day, five pilings do not allow more ships or bigger ships."
The port area has been an industrial and commercial area for centuries and "putting in the five pilings doesn't permit more" ships, she added.
The permit does incorporate a voluntary agreement between the Ports Authority and Charleston limiting the number of cruise stops to 104 a year. The authority would notify the city and neighborhood groups and hold public hearings if that number were to change.
"We are highly disappointed that the permit was issued with no caveats and based on a legally nonbinding agreement by which the SPA will merely provide the city with notification of any changes. At that point it is a done deal and the horse will be out of the barn," said Carrie Agnew, the executive director of a nonprofit called Charleston Communities for Cruise Control.
But Templeton said by including the agreement as a condition of the permit state regulators could technically, if the agreement is not upheld, require the Ports Authority to rip out the foundation for the terminal after it is built. The authority wants the pilings to support elevators in the new terminal.
"This is another positive step toward advancing Charleston's new passenger terminal, which will provide numerous benefits to the community while more efficiently supporting our port's cruise business," said Jim Newsome, the president and CEO of the Ports Authority.
He said while legal challenges remain "the concept plan and the terminal's design are the result of more than 100 meetings with the community and stakeholder groups as well as the approval of the city's Board of Architectural Review."
The permit requires that contractors use environmentally sound procedures in building such as using low-emission vehicles, turning off equipment when it is not being used and requiring those vehicles to use ultra-low sulfur fuel.
The dispute over the cruises has been raging several years. Back in 2010, Carnival Cruise Lines permanently based its 2,056-passenger liner Fantasy in Charleston, giving the city a year-round cruise industry. Before that the city only had a handful of seasonal cruises.
Opponents say the added tourists, traffic congestion and smoke from the cruise liners are destroying the historic fabric of the city.