Gaze out to sea from Sullivan's Island and chances are the view will include at least one huge freighter coming or going between the harbor and the great blue beyond. In fact, the South Carolina State Ports Authority claims that Charleston has the highest productivity rate of any port in North America, meaning lots of cargo. As the U.S. transitions from a manufacturing to a distribution economy, traffic through our port could increase fivefold in the coming decades, necessitating an expansion.
Enter Carolina Linkages (Carolinks). Formed in 2005, the Charleston-based corporation plans to build an inland port-truck stop-manufacturing-and-distribution center 100 miles upriver to alleviate pressure at the burgeoning Wando Welch terminal. Congressman Jim Clyburn has supported the concept for years, and former U.S. Senate majority leader Tom Daschle and former Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta are among the heavy hitters on the CaroLinks board. The original idea was to ship containers via rail to a site at the undeveloped intersection of interstates 26 and 95. The industrial park promised jobs, less truck traffic on I-26, and greater efficiency at the port.
Over the summer, CaroLinks' land speculation shifted 12 miles up I-95 from the interchange to a 789-acre parcel outside of Santee on Lake Marion. The new site already had water and sewage, and Clyburn's efforts to appropriate $40 million to build a cloverleaf at the nearby U.S. 301/I-95 interchange were going well. When a proposed container yard at Shipyard Creek on Charleston harbor fell through, the Post and Courier reported on Sept. 20 that CaroLinks' primary shipping method would be barges rather than rail, and the firestorm of opposition began.
Don and Marie Antal retired from the Washington, D.C. area to Santee earlier this year, purchasing a modest house on the water in a gated resort community. They looked forward to spending their golden years in a quiet, Southern town, relaxing on the water in their boat. I-95 crosses the lake about half a mile north, just far enough away that the view from their porch is still peaceful. "We found out about (the inland port) after we had signed the contract," says Don. "We probably wouldn't have bought the house."
In response to growing concern and increased press attention, the Antals and a group of neighbors formed the informal organization, Friends of Santee-Cooper Lakes, and a website, www.SanteeInlandPort.com, as a means of collecting all of the available information in one place.
"We want to educate people to make them understand what the impact is and then let nature take its course here," says Don. Their concerns are plentiful, from obstruction of their view and noise pollution to security issues and environmental concerns. "When ships come here from saltwater and from other nations, and then get here and dump bilge water out, species can get carried through," explains Marie. "(Zebra) mussels attached to the sides of boats have decimated places like Lake Erie."
In an official answer to questions proposed by the Friends of Santee, CaroLinks states "barge traffic will not affect fishing any differently than will non-fishing recreational boating." Several dozen charter fishing companies operate on the lakes and rivers of Santee-Cooper country, and the introduction of nonnative invasive species could effectively put them out of business if fish populations are choked out.
Jamie Courtney owns Hill's Landing, a fishing charter on the canal between lakes Moultrie and Marion, and is concerned mostly about the sheer increase in large boat traffic. "It certainly would not be a plus for our business. In the summertime there may be 30 or 40 (recreational) boats in the lock at a time. There's no way in the world they're going to be able to ship that many barges through there, unless they're going to stop letting private boats go through."
CaroLinks' projected plan includes two roundtrips per day. The 100-mile one-way journey from Wando Welch to Santee takes around 24 hours, and the locks can accommodate only one barge at a time. While in the narrow canals and much of the river, barges won't be able to pass each other, necessitating a structured time schedule without flexibility for weather and obstacles that may slow the journey.
Atmosphere of Distrust
"If the feasibility study shows us that we can do it, then that's what we'll do," says CaroLinks' Senior Vice President Alan Capper. "In the end, if we decide to use the waterways, they should be reminded that they existed for commerce a long time ago, and they're used every day by a number of different companies. It's already a reality."
Citizens in Santee feel that statements like that are misleading. Barges often travel up the Cooper River from Wando Welch, but only two or three venture more than the 12 miles to Goose Creek each year. "They're trying to couch this thing as already going on, which is a blatant lie," says Don Antal. "It does not engender trust in the community."
When CaroLinks CEO Lucy Duncan-Scheman attended a Santee City Council meeting in November, area residents packed the room. "It was a bigger meeting than anyone expected," says CaroLinks' Capper. "No one expected emotions to be riding that high. People weren't particularly polite. It was an extremely unpleasant atmosphere."
The meeting was intended to foster a relationship between the company and townspeople, but Duncan-Scheman exited before taking questions, leaving many people suspicious. Santee Mayor Silas Seabrooks explains that her hasty departure was his decision. "I did it to protect her. When you're turning people out wild, they do all kinds of foolish things."
Without information, however, citizens and officials are left to their own assertions. Five counties border Lake Marion, yet it appears only Orangeburg was involved in early negotiations. Jim Rozier, Berkeley County supervisor, learned of the plan while reading the newspaper, despite his position and responsibility to the Cooper River. "We have a very delicate system of rice field banks on that river that would absolutely be washed away," says Rozier. "That river is absolutely loaded with fishing boats. A barge isn't going to go around a fisherman."
Rozier's strong comments against barging in a series of Charleston Regional Business Journal stories obviously turned heads at CaroLinks. "Jim Rozier knows nothing about our intentions or how we're going to do this," says CaroLinks' Capper. "All of his statements have been made from a position of having no information whatsoever." Ironically, that lack of information is the biggest complaint opponents have made.
"We're being asked to trust this company, but they have no track record of success they can point to elsewhere," says Don Antal."It's not like IBM saying they're going to put a chip manufacturing plant in town and bring 200 jobs at a set rate."
Looking for Work
Mayor Seabrooks, who was born and raised in Santee, feels the port is "the best thing to happen since sliced bread. All we have are hamburger jobs, hot dogs, hamburgers and french fries, and they're paying as close to the minimum wage as possible. I can't be that narrow-hearted that I don't want something for the future."
In Orangeburg County, where unemployment hovers around 10 percent, jobs are indeed in high demand. CaroLinks believes that as companies establish regional bases at their facility, thousands of new jobs will be created, both in industry and hospitality. Port opponents cite the lack of a skilled labor force in the area, and feel that nonlocal trucking and port union members will receive first right of refusal on the more desirable jobs. "Everybody here is concerned about the economy," explains Antal. "But what they've done is position this as a mutually exclusive, 'If you want jobs then you have to have the port, and if you're against the port, you're against jobs.'"
With its location on Lake Marion and along I-95, Santee already attracts over one million visitors a year to the "Oasis of Recreation" it touts on interstate billboards. Sonny Briggman, the general manager of Lake Marion Resort and Marina, feels the industrial park will create even more business. "Economically, I think it'd be a tremendous boost to Santee. Obviously these people will be employed here and will need places to live. We've got a very nice campground open to transient workers that come in on a long-term basis."
Buck Travis, the president of the Santee Business Association, feels differently. "Exit 97 (cite of proposed cloverleaf) is only a mile away. Trucks going north and south from there will be going through 16 gears, blocking exit 98 (Santee's commercial center)." As the owner of Prudential Santee Associates Realty, Travis asserts that waterfront property might be harder to sell with barges in the water and towering cranes next door.
"I just feel that these people coming in and trying to do this are economical terrorists," he says. "They hit and run — bang — build something, destroy everything else but they're out here celebrating going, 'Gee, look what we've done and how much money we make.' People have invested money and they're looking to see, in my opinion, what they can destroy."
Mayor Seabrooks disagrees that barges will lower property value. "Buck Travis wants to cut off his nose to spite his face. I've never seen nobody so pro-negative. What's more beautiful than to sit out on the patio and see a barge going by? To me that's more exciting than anything else." Nonetheless, in all of his good intentions of spurring economic growth, the 75-year-old Seabrooks isn't overly concerned about the ecological impact of the lake from invasive species. "In 20 years technology would have made different changes. Maybe we'll have a cure for that."
Worries about environmental impact are speculative, but the impact of barges on the lakes could be major. A spill would be detrimental to water quality, and introducing alien species is nearly inevitable when bringing boats from the ocean. "Once you destroy the waterways, they're gone," says Friends of Santee founding member Sandra Turner. "You just don't pour Clorox in it and then it's okay again. Everybody on this lake is a stakeholder in this decision."
The Devil's in the Details
By early January, CaroLinks will have closed on the Santee property, making the industrial park a future reality. Some type of distribution center to relieve the pressure on Charleston's port is desperately needed, and as a market-driven company, CaroLinks plays a much needed role.
"The real excitement for South Carolina is that you've got I-95 connecting New York to Miami right through this state," says CaroLinks' CEO Lucy Duncan-Scheman. The center will bring in raw material, do some manufacturing on site, and is centrally located for dispersion from there.
As a halfway point, economically distressed Orangeburg County is a logical location for an intermodal industrial park. Whether it creates 50 or 5,000 jobs, it'll help, but will also compromise the rural nature of the surrounding lands. The complex itself will be built on top of a sod farm.
Heading into Charleston on I-26, a CaroLinks billboard greets drivers with the slogan "Rail, Barges, Ingenuity."
"One of the original concepts was that this would reduce trucks on the highway," says CaroLinks' Capper. "That seemed to be a laudable intention, and not one that people have picked up on as a benefit to them." In the case of a major evacuation, something Charleston will likely experience in the coming years, fewer trucks on the highway would certainly ease the traffic flow.
While CaroLinks has indicated that the barge project is subject to a feasibility study, the company has appeared confident that the barge plan would move forward — at least until the last few days.
Last Friday morning, CaroLinks called City Paper and verified that their contractor for handling barges was "telling us they don't feel like they have a problem" with feasibility. Later that afternoon, however, CEO Duncan-Scheman called to emphasize that the barge project is far from a definite. "There is absolutely no way that I'm even close to making a decision on that; not even a little bit close," she says. "Unless we figure that it is economically viable, there is no way in the world that we're going to invest a penny in it."
Opponents like the Antals should be happy to hear that slight change in tune. In the meantime, while CaroLinks completes their feasibility study, Friends of Santee continues to spread the word about their perceived dangers to the waterways, serving as citizen watchdogs to a corporation with deep pockets and powerful roots in Washington. Forty million dollars in federal dollars for a new cloverleaf is no drop in the bucket, and Santee citizens like Buck Travis point out that four other undeveloped cloverleafs already exist within ten miles of Santee.
Despite official answers to Friends of Santee's questions that CaroLinks recently released, Capper doesn't see the conflict dissipating. "I suspect that whatever answers we give to their questions, it won't satisfy them. They won't go away. This is almost like a classic 21st-century issue." Just another small town struggling to preserve its environment and ruralidentity in the face of encroaching mega-developers.