COLUMBIA — The latest maneuver in the battle over Georgia’s harbor deepening comes back to the question: Who is in charge of the Savannah River?
On Thursday, South Carolina’s environmental board will consider whether to grant an appeal hearing to the Georgia Ports Authority and the Savannah District of the Army Corps of Engineers, which are both challenging a South Carolina panel’s efforts to restrict the Savannah harbor expansion project.
The corps and the ports authority argue the South Carolina Savannah River Maritime Commission, a panel created by the South Carolina Legislature in 2007, does not have the authority to impose its own terms and conditions on Georgia’s harbor deepening. They want the Department of Health and Environmental Control board to invalidate the Maritime Commission’s May 8 notice, which includes limiting the deepening to 45 feet from its current 42 feet, instead of allowing it to be deepened to 47 feet, which is the depth the corps recommended.
The reason the corps appealed to the DHEC board on May 23 was to maintain its legal standing before the body while waiting for the South Carolina Supreme Court to resolve a lawsuit filed by the Savannah Riverkeeper, the Maritime Commission and others against DHEC, the corps’ Savannah District spokesman Billy Birdwell said Wednesday morning.
In that conflict, the environmental groups argued the DHEC board usurped the powers of the Maritime Commission in November when the board granted the corps permits for water quality and construction in navigable waters.
The South Carolina Supreme Court suit is just one amid a tangle of legal and legislative challenges centered on what is considered to be Georgia’s most crucial public works project.
Environmental groups, represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, are also challenging the massive project in federal court on the grounds that a pollution permit should have been sought but was not.
Correspondence last week from the corps and ports authority to DHEC indicate there is confusion over the proper channels to oppose the Maritime Commission’s efforts to restrict the $653 million deepening. Both note that they are also petitioning for a contested case hearing before the South Carolina Administrative Law Court.
The DHEC board has been friendly to Georgia Ports Authority’s cause.
In November, the six-member board – all appointed by Gov. Nikki Haley – voted to accept the DHEC staff’s reversal of its initial Sept. 30 denial for the project’s 401 Water Quality Certification and Navigable Waters Permit.
Members of the South Carolina Legislature remain angry with Haley for granting Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal’s request that the board hear Georgia’s appeal. Palmetto State lawmakers also battered DHEC for the November reversal, with some calling it the most destructive decision the agency had ever made.
Among South Carolina critics’ concerns is the prospect of a deeper port of Savannah further outstripping the Port of Charleston in global commerce.
A host of other objections are detailed in Maritime Commission chairman Dean Moss’ “Notice of Proposed Decision,” dated May 8.
The commission detailed a new complaint: That the settlement that DHEC staff and board members ultimately approved when they tossed aside the Sept. 30 denial was drafted with significant involvement by the corps and Georgia Ports Authority.
“Even the five-page DHEC decision was not really DHEC’s own decision but one crafted by the Savannah Corps and GPA to meet their needs and desires,” wrote Moss, citing e-mails exchanged between the parties.
The commission’s notice also criticized the project’s proposed dissolved-oxygen injection system, the funding assurances to keeping it in operation and the potential harm to the Savannah estuary. It also contends that the corps’ Environmental Impact Statement in April didn’t fully address the disposal of toxic material, specifically “high levels of cadmium” in the dredge material.
The commission also questioned the corps’ and GPA’s commitment to a proposed bi-state Jasper Ocean Terminal.
“The environmental impacts on wetlands, water quality, and fish and wildlife, independently and collectively, dictate that a shallower depth be authorized,” wrote Moss.
“The difference in adverse environmental impacts between controlling depths of (45 and 47-foot depths) is significant, and the difference in economic benefits is minimal.”
The deeper water is intended to service larger container vessels coming through the expanded Panama Canal in 2014. Georgia officials have said the deepened harbor will bring economic benefit to both Georgia and South Carolina and will boost the prospects of a shared Jasper Ocean Terminal on South Carolina’s side of the river.