Savannah harbor deepening settlement reached

COLUMBIA — Georgia and South Carolina have reached a deal on how to move forward with an environmental permit to deepen the Savannah Harbor, one that requires Georgia to financially guarantee an annual $1.2 million maintenance measure in the event Congress fails to appropriate the amount.

A second key change approved by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control Board Thursday addressed the agency staff’s concern about the deepening project’s potential damage to wetlands.

Under Thursday’s settlement, Georgia officials have offered to preserve additional saltwater marshland in South Carolina using a credit system. The land that is expected to be preserved is owned by Georgia but located in South Carolina’s Jasper County. It is not located on the 1,500-acre site that has been designated for the proposed Jasper Ocean Terminal.

Thursday’s hearing was intended to allow the DHEC Board to vote on whether to toss out the South Carolina agency’s Sept. 30 recommendation to deny the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ request for a water quality permit for the harbor deepening. But last-minute negotiations Thursday morning between officials from both states yielded the settlement that was ultimately approved by the DHEC Board.

“There were some difference of opinions on some final pieces, but we were able to come together,” said Georgia Ports Authority Executive Director Curtis Foltz after the vote.

“At the end of the day we were happy to do it because it was the right thing to do.”

During the meeting, DHEC attorney John Harleston laid out the settlement proposal to the board and praised Georgia officials for their role.

“The state of Georgia has done a fine job coming forward at this hour and helping out to reach this resolution,” said Harleston. “The river has been the fence between two neighboring states. It may sound a little corny, but good fences make good neighbors.”

The conflict is not over, however.

The S.C. Coastal Conservation League, which has warned that the $600 million deepening project will significantly harm the environment, plans to appeal the agreement to the S.C. Administrative Law Court, arguing in part that the the proposed oxygenation system has not been proved to be effective.

Part of the Board’s approval of the settlement was tied to a related hurdle that fell Wednesday. The the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service announced that the Corps’ plan was “not likely to jeopardize” the endangered shortnose sturgeon.

In February the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’s Environmental Protection Division issued its own water quality certification.

The harbor project, if approved, would also finance a $7 million fish passage structure at New Savannah Bluff Lock & Dam near Augusta - and provide more funding for Georgia’s striped bass stocking program.

Both projects were among mitigation measures proposed by the corps to compensate for habitat loss the deepening could cause in coastal estuaries.

The 73-year-old New Savannah Bluff dam was earmarked for demolition after a 1999 corps study concluded it was no longer needed to support commercial shipping - for which it was built in 1937.

Local governments later agreed to adopt the structure if it is restored at federal expense. So far, however, Congress has not provided the $22 million needed to renovate the dam and add fish passage.

The harbor mitigation package would finance only the fish structure - a horseshoe-shaped, 75-foot-wide ramp with 9-inch ledges that would allow fish to bypass the dam and move upstream. Funds for the rest of the repairs would still be needed.

Staff Writer Rob Pavey contributed to this story

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