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This undated file photo shows the Sea Island spit, where Sea Island Co. propose building a new groin and conducting beach renourishment. Three environmental groups are suing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to halt the process.

Local environmental groups are taking the Army Corps of Engineers to federal court to challenge a September permit and its supporting documents that allow for groin construction and beach renourishment on the Sea Island spit, efforts the Sea Island Company intend to bear fruit with future resort development.

The lawsuit by the Altamaha Riverkeeper and One Hundred Miles challenges the Corps’ permit grant that would allow “a new T-head groin in front of Sea Island Acquisition’s newest development, the Reserve at Sea Island; to dredge between (1.315 million) to (2.5 million) cubic yards of sand from an offshore source; and to renourish more than 17,000 linear feet of beach on Sea Island.” The suit filed by the Center for a Sustainable Coast two days later notes it is a companion suit to the one by the Riverkeeper and OHM.

The Riverkeeper and OHM suit declares the permit and the Corps’ findings that led to it “are arbitrary and capricious” and violate the Administrative Procedures Act, the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. They’re seeking to vacate the statement of findings and the permit, enjoin construction of the groin pending legality of the environmental reviews challenged, removal of any part of the groin that’s built during litigation and restoration of the shoreline.

“The significant erosion caused by the existing groin to the Sea Island spit, Gould’s Inlet and St. Simons Island, coupled with the hurricane damage, shows just how vulnerable this area is — and will continue to be — in the face of future weather events,” Jen Hilburn, the Altamaha Riverkeeper, said in a statement. “We’ve seen time and again that groins and other harmful coastal structures do not solve the problems that result from shoreline erosion and in fact, can create even more long-term damage.”

In addition, the suit also accuses the Corps of violating the Endangered Species Act by not consulting with the National Marine Fisheries Service — also known as NOAA Fisheries — after the Sea Island Company amended its application to significantly increase the proposed dredging and renourishment plans.

The suit has an accompanying preliminary injunction, which the Center for a Sustainable Coast joins in support.

“We are convinced that the physical characteristics of the spit, federal findings indicating that the area is so hazardous that it’s ineligible for federal flood insurance, and the extreme damage done by hurricanes Matthew (2016) and Irma (2017) provides conclusive evidence that the Corps permit was issued without adequate evaluation — resulting in harm to the public and violation of federal law,” David Kyler, director of the Center for a Sustainable Coast, said in a statement.

In regard to nesting sea turtles, the suit states the T-head portion “can inhibit nesting females from reaching the beach or act as a barrier to hatchlings as they attempt to migrate to the ocean.” It also notes that hatchlings can become trapped it the groin “or be killed by predators that are more concentrated near the structure,” and cites the Corps’ coastal engineering manual that discourages groins for shore protection as a matter of policy.

Georgia’s coast is unique in how it fosters interconnected species, and as coastal development increased in Florida and South Carolina, decisions that kept Georgia’s barrier islands in a more-natural state tended to increase that reliance.

The Riverkeeper/OHM suit cited a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determination that development of the spit could impact the populations of leatherback and loggerhead sea turtles, the North Atlantic right whale, piping plovers, Atlantic and short nose sturgeons, red knots, wood storks, Wes Indian manatees, Eastern indigo snakes and gopher tortoises, while a Sea Island biological assessment said that negative effects are unlikely.

“The Clean Water Act was written to protect public resources, not private interests,” Alice Keyes, OHM vice president of coastal conservation, said in a statement. “Approval of a groin for speculative development that will be a detriment to downstream landowners contradicts the intent of the law.

“While many communities are preparing for rising seas and increased erosion, it is important to not set a bad precedent with this ill-conceived project. We are confident that a judge will consider our arguments and that justice will prevail.”

Sea Island Company CEO Scott Steilen said in a statement Tuesday evening, “Each of these permits were issued through expert reviews f the project, with public participation, at both the state and federal levels, since 2015.

“This project will protect developed portions of Sea Island as part of our ongoing efforts to repair the damage to the Sea Island beach caused by two 100-year storms that occurred during an 11-month period. The nourishment project will restore the protective dunes prior to the 2019 sea turtle nesting season and hurricane season.

“The result will be a wonderful wildlife habitat, especially for sea turtles and shorebirds, and an enhanced recreational area with dry sand beach at high tide from end to end. We are excited about the many benefits of placing 1.3 million cubic yards of beach-quality sand into the sand-sharing system, which should have lasting benefits for decades to come.”

Steilen said as to the complaints against the Corps, the Sea Island Company is confident the Corps “executed a thorough review process and reached its conclusion that this is a sound project worthy of moving forward,” and that the court will find the same.

The permit requires Sea Island Acquisition to complete all work between Nov. 1 and April 30 of any given year, so it’s outside of sea turtle nesting season, and weekly escarpment inspections April 1-Oct. 31. According to the permit, “Escarpments that interfere with marine turtle nesting or that exceed 18 inches in height for a distance of 100 feet or more will be graded to the natural beach contour with guidance from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.”

Further, “(d)redging within right whale critical habitat from December through March must follow the protocol established within the Early Warning System.” There are to be full-time NMFS-certified endangered species observers present during dredging to document anything regarding sea turtles, manatees or whales.

William Sapp of the Southern Environmental Law Center filed the Riverkeeper/OHM suit, with Megan Hinkle Huynh of the SELC approved to represent the groups, pro hac vice. According to the suit, a pro hac vice motion is also pending for SELC’s Bob Sherrier. Kasey Sturm of Weissman P.C. in Atlanta is representing the Center for a Sustainable Coast.

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