Rice writes legislation to stop environmental groups from holding up major infrastructure projects

Rice writes legislation to stop environmental groups from holding up major infrastructure projects

MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - The construction of Interstate 73 is the closest it has ever been to starting.

The permit application has been filed, thousands of public comments have been submitted and now it is just a waiting game to find out if the permit will be approved.

But some lawmakers, like Congressman Tom Rice from South Carolina's Seventh Congressional District, fear that while the reality of I-73 seems near, it could be jeopardized by environmental groups like the Coastal Conservation League, which continues to fight another road battle against the expansion of International Drive.

That is why he has proposed a bill in Congress that could hold those groups back from filing lawsuits against these big projects.

"An environmental group can come in and pay $500 and file a lawsuit and hold it up for years with no investment and no skin in the game, and sometimes really very little in terms of substantive problems with the project," Rice said. "There's people out there that just want to hold up progress. They just want things the way they are."

Rice believes these kinds of actions, in the long run, are hurting people who live in the local area.

"There's nothing that we can do that will more impact job creation, that will more impact people's wealth, that will more impact opportunity for our children and grandchildren than infrastructure and, in particular, I-73," Rice said.

He is working to stop what he calls extortion, writing and proposing a bill in Congress that would require the "loser" to pay the court costs and attorney fees for the winning side of the issue.

"We've got to release ourselves from a little bit of this red tape," Rice said. "My position is that there are layer after layer after layer of both governmental and agency and public review. Environmental groups should be a part of that public review. I have no problem with that at all, but to give them a veto power - that's essentially what you're doing - you're saying after everybody else is finished and they're satisfied and they're ready to move on, then one person can have a veto power to stop a project like this. That's a little absurd."

Those on the other side of this debate say this proposed legislation does not take the public's best interest into account and that it is not as simple as cutting a little bit of red tape.

"If we don't have these checks and balances, then the public does not have a chance to comment and does not have a chance to say, 'Wait a second,' and projects will move forward without anybody ever knowing about it," said Nancy Cave with the Coastal Conservation League. "It is critically important that the public who is paying for it, who will be using the project perhaps - but also will bear the impacts of that project - they need to have a public say."

Cave believes this bill could stop people from speaking up about these kinds of issues.

"If you require payment that could get very expensive, then you are denying the public participation. You are rigging the system towards the developers and special interests who will be making millions off these projects," Cave said. "I don't think that's the best thing for the congressman's district or for the state or country."

For now the legislation does not seem to be going too far. It only has 30 Republican co-sponsors. Its last movement was to the Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment for consideration.

According to GovTrack.us, a website that compiles data and tracks the U.S. Congress, the "Discouraging Frivolous Lawsuits" legislation that Rice has written only has a 3 percent chance of being enacted.

Read Rice's proposed bill below:

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