By Harriet McLeod
CHARLESTON, South Carolina (Reuters) - A coalition of environmental and preservation groups filed a lawsuit against federal authorities on Monday seeking to block construction of a $35 million cruise ship terminal near Charleston, South Carolina's nationally recognized historic district.
The groups argue that cruise ships bring soot, water pollution, noise and increased traffic to residents of the historic district and threaten the economic value of some properties that are on the National Register of Historic Places.
They say the Army Corps of Engineers, which issued permits for the new terminal in April, improperly listed the work as "maintenance" and didn't subject its permitting process to public scrutiny.
"A project with the explicit aim of converting a defunct cargo warehouse into a modern passenger cruise terminal is not ‘maintenance,'" according to the lawsuit, which was filed in District Court in Washington, D.C.
The lawsuit named the Army Corps of Engineers, Army Secretary John McHugh and Attorney General Eric Holder as defendants.
A spokeswoman for the Corps of Engineers' Charleston District said that office had not yet seen the lawsuit on Monday and could not comment.
The effort to turn the old warehouse into a new 100,000-square-foot terminal for cruise ships has been in the works for several years, said Allison Skipper, spokeswoman for the State Ports Authority, which is building the facility.
The goal is to attract more cruise business to Charleston, which has served as a home port for Carnival Cruise Lines' Fantasy ship since 2010. Construction has not yet begun on the new facility, though Skipper said officials were hoping to start issuing construction contracts this summer.
"We have had more than 100 meetings with the community over where to place the cruise ship terminal," Skipper said, noting that the design passed a voluntary city architectural review.
She said the port has volunteered to limit the number of cruise ship visits to 104 a year, with no two ships in port at the same time. Each vessel carries about 3,500 passengers, she said.
The preservation groups argue that those limits are only voluntary, and that more and larger ships will be coming to Charleston.
"The concern is how do we do this in the right scale and manner so that (cruise ship traffic) is balanced with this historic district that is so economically valuable," said Blan Holman, attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, which filed the suit.
The groups last year sued Carnival Cruise Lines, alleging that its cruise ships violate the city's sign and height ordinances and constitute illegal hotel operations. A hearing on the cruise line's motion to dismiss that lawsuit is scheduled in state court for July 12.
Charleston's historic district was designated as a National Historic Landmark District in 1960, one of the first in the United States.
(Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Greg McCune and Phil Berlowitz)