CHARLESTON, S.C. — A federal judge will decide whether a $600 million deepening of the Savannah River shipping channel requires a pollution permit from the state of South Carolina before the work can begin.
The Georgia ports want the river deepened to handle larger ships that will be calling when the Panama Canal is deepened in two years.
Last month, conservation groups on both sides of the river separating the two states sued in South Carolina state court, saying a pollution permit is needed because deepening the 32-mile shipping channel will mean dredging up toxic cadmium in the silt. The suit contends the material would be dumped on the South Carolina side of the river.
This month, the case was moved to federal court in Charleston and will be heard by U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel. Federal law allows such cases to be moved out of state court when a federal official or agency is being sued in its official capacity.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been granted an extension of time to answer the complaint, and that response is now due in mid-April.
The complaint was filed by the Southern Environmental Law Center, brought on behalf of the Savannah Riverkeeper based in Augusta, the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League and the South Carolina Wildlife Federation. It notes the corps’ own draft environmental impact statement on the deepening indicated that there is cadmium in clays that would be removed as the river bottom is deepened.
The question of another South Carolina approval for the project is going before the state’s highest court.
Earlier this month, the same conservation groups, along with the Conservation Voters of South Carolina, asked the justices to declare illegal a state Department of Health and Environmental Control water quality permit for the work.
The suit contends DHEC’s water quality permit was illegal because state lawmakers gave authority over river dredging decisions to the South Carolina Savannah River Maritime Commission five years ago. DHEC agreed last week that the high court should resolve who decides the matter.
Lawmakers recently passed a law retroactively suspending DHEC’s ability to make dredging decisions. Gov. Nikki Haley vetoed the law, but lawmakers easily overrode her veto.
Last year, Haley asked the DHEC board to hear Georgia’s appeal of the water quality permit after the agency staff initially denied it. Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal earlier flew to Columbia to meet with Haley, and Haley said Deal made a reasonable request and she did not pressure the board for approval.
Minutes before the appeal was to be heard, the agency reached a settlement with the Georgia Ports Authority and Army Corps of Engineers. Without debate, the DHEC board then approved the settlement.