Army corps warns it's prepared to ignore objections to deepening Savannah harbor

South Carolina protests could end up ignored

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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.

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The Georgia Ports Authority wants to keep Savannah competitive as the shipping industry shifts toward supersized cargo ships that require greater depths.   File/Associated Press
File/Associated Press
The Georgia Ports Authority wants to keep Savannah competitive as the shipping industry shifts toward supersized cargo ships that require greater depths.

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.

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Little Lamb
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Little Lamb 10/15/11 - 10:00 pm
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Well, let's remember; South

Well, let's remember; South Carolina militia troops fired the shots on the federal garrison at Fort Sumpter to start the War Between the States. South Carolina and the rest of the Confederacy lost that war. It only stands to reason that South Carolina will lose this war, too.

Pu239
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Pu239 10/15/11 - 10:11 pm
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If they dredge the river to
Unpublished

If they dredge the river to improve the harbor capacity and the river flow volume at Augusta changes....will Ripken baseball change the name from the GreenJackets to the Mud Cats?

etlinks
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etlinks 10/16/11 - 07:20 am
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How the AC allows ignorant

How the AC allows ignorant comments on here is beyond me. Its like they want to stir up some crap. Lets take in to count the endangerment of the ecological environment not what someone living in la la land may think.

Riverman1
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Riverman1 10/16/11 - 08:27 am
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(I hope I don't anger etlinks

(I hope I don't anger etlinks with my comments.)

Salt water intrusion is the big ecological issue. If a larger volume of water is required for the deeper harbor, the discharge from Thurmond Dam is critical to maintaining the fresh water in the harbor.

etlinks
20256
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etlinks 10/16/11 - 09:08 am
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No R1 your comments are

No R1 your comments are always refreshing and I agree with your statements I just wish some posters would stick to the story. Not mad but sometimes a nerve gets touched the wrong way. I hope a mutual understanding can be reached with this river channel issue.

Little Lamb
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Little Lamb 10/16/11 - 12:19 pm
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Don't worry about and "larger

Don't worry about and "larger volumes" or "reduced flows" with this deepening. The flow rate at Augusta is independent of the harbor depth. When they dredge the riverbottom deeper to accommodate bigger ships, it does not affect flow rates. And it shouldn't affect harbor salinity much if any. Remember, the same flow will be coming downstream as does now. The harbor will achieve a steady-state situation except when flow rates change with major rainfall patterns.

Little Lamb
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Little Lamb 10/16/11 - 12:23 pm
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If the Corps proceeds ahead

If the Corps proceeds ahead with the dredging and ignores South Carolina's protests, SC will sue the Corps and seek a court injunction. But they will have to sue in federal court. Guess what the outcome of that will be!

Pu239
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Pu239 10/16/11 - 03:22 pm
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I wonder why COE is pushing
Unpublished

I wonder why COE is pushing for the removal of the New Savanah Bluff Lock and Dam?

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