Four witnesses testify for day two of International Drive hearing

Four witnesses testify for day two of International Drive hearing

COLUMBIA, SC (WMBF) - The Administrative Law Court hearing on International Drive continued in Columbia Wednesday.

Four witnesses testified including the director of SCDNR, a former lawyer for SCDNR and two DHEC employees.

SCDNR Director Alvin Taylor stands by the department's decision to take the bear tunnels and bear fencing from the original project plan in favor of a slower speed limit.

"Staff recommendation was that if we lowered the speed limit, we could affectively keep from striking animals," Taylor told the judge.

Taylor said the eight-foot fencing that was included in the original plan along with the bear tunnels could trap the bears if they get into the street side of the fence from the ends of it or from curb cuts.

"Therefore causing high mortality if they get in there because the vehicles are traveling at a high rate of speed," he said.

Plus, Taylor said DNR has found the population of black bears has diminished since the 2009 forest fire.

"After the fire, the number of bears in the bay drastically went down," he said. "We aren't sure whether many of them were burned or, if in fact because the habitat changed, they left and just did not come back."

Steve Gilbert, of the South Carolina Wildlife Federation, contested those population numbers in Tuesday's hearing because the department used two different sampling methods within the time period being analyzed.

Taylor stands by the statistics.

He also talked about how the bear population is increasing in areas other than Lewis Ocean Bay, allowing black bear hunting now.

"Our biologists feel that it's a good practice to try to work on that population and keep it in a manageable state through a hunting season," he said.

Taylor said DNR also looks at cost as a factor for its decisions. The bear tunnels came with a nearly $3 million price tag.

However, Taylor told the South Carolina Environmental Law Project he doesn't know what the price of the project would be for a two-lane road with bear tunnels compared to a four-lane road without them.

Taylor said Horry County's agreement to pay DNR for the right-of-way or any sort of political pressure did not play into the decision to change the plans. He said he did not sell out to Horry County.

The South Carolina Environmental Law Project is working to get a judge to overturn DHEC water quality and coastal zone consistency certifications for International Drive due to those possible environmental effects.

A DHEC employee who worked on the 401 water quality certification also testifed Wednesday, saying the organization found the project to be justified due to traffic congestion in the area and a mitigation plan was presented with the application.

Blair Williams, a wetlands permitting manager for DHEC, testifed as well.

He said DHEC found no reasonable alternatives to International Drive in addition to an overriding public interest for the project. He said only one of those aspects needs to be proven to achieve the necessary certifications when paired with a plan to minimize effects on environment.

He also noted he thinks the paving of International Drive will help reconnect wetlands in the area because piping will be installed.

"I think the ability of returning that hydrology, that exchange in between two wetlands will actually provide some enhancement to those wetlands," Williams said.

The hearing will continue Thursday.

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