COLUMBIA — A measure suspending the authority of South Carolina’s environmental agency to make dredging decisions for the Savannah River received another unanimous vote in the Senate on Wednesday, putting it a step away from the governor’s desk.
The joint resolution is designed to help lawmakers’ efforts in undoing a water quality permit granted by the Department of Health and Environment Control, which allows Georgia to expand the Savannah port.
The Senate added a clause Wednesday clarifying that the retroactive suspension applies specifically to the Savannah port issue, so unrelated permits for the river aren’t affected.
The House is expected to agree to the change, which would send the measure to Gov. Nikki Haley to sign or veto. She could also allow it to take effect without her signature.
The Republican governor has drawn fire for asking her board chairman to hear Georgia’s appeal.
In a rare show of unanimity last week, House Republicans and Democrats took turns decrying the decision as disastrous to the state’s economy and environment, before approving the measure 111-0.
The Senate followed this week with back-to-back votes Tuesday and Wednesday of 37-0, though without discussion.
“Every member of the General Assembly is speaking very clearly that we don’t like the path we were going down concerning the future of our ports,” said Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Charleston, the primary sponsor. He wishes the agency and Haley would call the decision a mistake and join legislators in their efforts, “so we could talk with one voice, instead of being divided.”
Haley has remained steadfast in supporting the board, made up entirely of members she appointed last year.
Repeating last week’s response, Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey called the Senate vote “an unfortunate over-step of the Legislature’s authority.” He did not comment on what Haley plans to do when it reaches her desk.
Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Columbia, said the overreach happened when Haley inserted herself into the agency’s decision.
“She chose to intervene. She chose to assert herself,” he said.
A joint resolution has the same force as law, and must go through the same approval process. But it is a temporary measure that dies when the issue’s over.
It would suspend the agency’s ability to make dredging decisions, as of 2007. That’s when legislators created the Savannah River Maritime Commission and gave it authority to represent South Carolina on navigability issues in the river shared with Georgia.
Neither it, nor the state Ports Authority, nor the state’s natural resources agency was consulted before DHEC awarded the permit in November, two months after agency staff denied it, citing unacceptable harm to the environment.
The maritime commission and the Southern Environmental Law Center have appealed the decision to the Administrative Law Court. The lawsuit is still in its early discovery stages, said Mark Plowden, spokesman for Attorney General Alan Wilson, who is representing the commission.
Environmental groups say the dredging will deplete dissolved oxygen in the already impaired river, destroy habitat of endangered fish and destroy hundreds of acres of fragile freshwater marsh. The commission argues it was improperly granted.
Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, said the unanimous votes should serve as a clear statement to the judge of the Legislature’s intent when it created the commission.
“The resolution, having passed as it did, will be influential in the outcome,” he said.
DHEC’s board could have let the staff’s decision stand.
The reversal came after Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal flew to Columbia to meet with Haley, and she – responding to what she called a perfectly reasonable request – called DHEC’s board chairman into her office and asked that the board hear the appeal. Minutes before the hearing started, staff reached an agreement with Georgia and the Army Corps of Engineers, which the board approved unanimously with no debate.
“It’s hard to believe they could’ve screwed it up any worse,” Lourie said.
The decision sparked outrage and Senate hearings, as legislators said South Carolina handed Georgia the competitive advantage over Charleston’s port and killed efforts to create a port in Jasper County 14 miles closer to the Atlantic than Savannah.
Agency leaders and the six board members testified to senators last month that Haley did not pressure them for approval. The testimony also made it clear that board members did not understand the science, particularly about the diesel-powered devices the agreement relies on to pump oxygen into the river. Environmentalists say they have not proven effective on such a large scale.