SAVANNAH, Ga. — As Georgia officials and the federal government work toward deepening the river channel used by cargo ships to reach Savannah’s bustling seaport, regulatory objections that could threaten the $600 million project are being raised by South Carolina, a stakeholder that also operates the nearest competing port.
Georgia wants to deepen the Savannah River along 35 miles between the Port of Savannah and the Atlantic Ocean. In a recent filing, South Carolina environmental regulators denied a water quality permit sought by the federal agency overseeing the project, saying it would cause unacceptable harm to the waterway’s endangered fish and fragile marshes.
The Army Corps of Engineers has appealed the rejection by South Carolina’s Department of Health and Environmental Control. If the two agencies can’t reach an agreement, the project could wind up in court.
The big question, which doesn’t have a clear answer, is how much legal weight South Carolina’s objection carries.
“It’s a very significant development,” said Chris DeScherer, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center. He argues the federal Clean Water Act allows
states to veto such projects.
The Army Corps says the opposite. Col. Jeffrey Hall, its Savannah District commander, is warning South Carolina regulators that an exemption in the same law would allow the corps to ignore the state’s objections.
In an Oct. 7 letter, Hall said he’s prepared to invoke that exemption – which says states can’t stop the Army Corps from maintaining waterways for ship navigation – if South Carolina doesn’t grant the permit on appeal.
“The Corps expressly reserves the right to proceed based on a federal exemption,” Hall wrote.
The Georgia Ports Authority has been seeking approval to dredge 6 feet of sand and mud from the river channel since 1997. It says deeper water is needed to keep the Savannah port, the fourth-busiest container port in the U.S., competitive as the shipping industry shifts toward supersized cargo ships. More giant ships are expected along the East Coast after 2014, when the Panama Canal is scheduled to finish a major expansion.
Gov. Nathan Deal has called the harbor deepening one of Georgia’s top economic priorities. South Carolina is also scrambling for federal funding and permits for deeper water at the Port of Charleston.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has spoken of Savannah’s port expansion in hostile tones, telling a port audience in Charleston a year ago that “Georgia has had their way with us for too long.” But she might be softening her position. Haley had lunch with Deal this month in Columbia.
For now, environmental officials working under Haley say the project would not be good for South Carolina. Their permit denial says deepening the river channel from 42 to 48 feet would upset the delicate balance of freshwater and saltwater needed to sustain 1,200 acres of marsh and would reduce oxygen levels in the river.
Adam Myrick, a spokesman for the South Carolina environmental agency, said its board would consider the corps’ appeal Nov. 10.
Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division also wasn’t entirely satisfied with the corps’ plans. The permit it granted for the Savannah project in February came with 15 conditions that the corps must agree to – including a chance to modify the terms every five years.
But what if the corps could deepen the Savannah harbor without permits from either state? That’s what Hall suggested in his letter to South Carolina.