Update: Judge Rules Against Environmental Upgrades for Bridge Project in Congaree National Park
A federal judge has ruled that a defective bridge over the Congaree River in central South Carolina can be replaced without correcting environmentally harmful features of the causeway-like bridge approach built long ago on floodplain land now within the borders of Congaree National Park. Environmentalists and park advocates are keenly disappointed, not least because the judge assigned no significance to the fact that the environmentally harmful bridge approach is in a national park.
South Carolina Department of Transportation (SCDOT) plans for replacing the Highway 601 bridge over the Congaree River call for rebuilding several miles of causeways on the Congaree River flood plain within Congaree National Park. Although no one objects to replacing the badly deteriorated span, which poses serious safety hazards, critics of the plan filed suit in 2006 to force changes to the bridge approach section of the project. They wanted some sections of the four-mile long bridge approach causeway replaced with short bridges so as to remove existing impediments to water flow and wildlife movement, preserve wetlands, and improve access to the national park.
In 2008 a federal court ruling compelled the Federal Highway Administration to do a more thorough environmental assessment of the project. The park advocates and environmental groups who spearheaded this legal action -- Friends of Congaree Swamp, the South Carolina Wildlife Federation, and the National Audubon Society -- filed a second lawsuit in September 2010 after deeming the Federal Highway Administration's revised EA to be no better than the original.
Work on the Congaree River span itself was allowed to proceed while this second suit was pending. However, most construction on the bridge approach was suspended.
On April 27, 2011, federal judge Margaret Seymour put an end to the legal wrangling by deciding in favor of the SCDOT. Judge Seymour ruled that the revised Environmental Assessment was adequate, that SCDOT should not be compelled to repair environmental damage caused by the original design of the bridge approach, and that special care need not be taken just because the bridge approach lies within a national park.
An appeal of the ruling is being considered. Barring additional delays, SCDOT expects to complete the bridge project, originally budgeted at $37 million, in 2013.