COLUMBIA — The staff and board of South Carolina’s environmental agency told senators Tuesday that Gov. Nikki Haley did not try to influence their vote on a permit allowing an expansion of the Savannah, Ga., port, but lawmakers still want to hear from four members of her staff.
Senators reviewing the state Department of Health and Environmental Control’s actions allowing the dredging of the Savannah River said the issue would have been settled by Tuesday’s seven-hour meeting if Haley’s staff had appeared before them.
“I’m extremely disappointed that the governor’s staff can’t see fit to participate so we could close the book on this,” said Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Columbia. “It would be so easy to let the chairman ask the same questions. My question is, why not? ... We’re not moving on until we get all the answers we need.”
Senators debated whether to issue subpoenas for Haley’s chief of staff, her attorney and two legislative liaisons, who confirmed 30 minutes before the meeting ended that they would not appear. Instead, senators decided to ask them again – “pretty please, with sugar on top,” as Lourie put it.
Haley informed committee leader and Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler in a letter that she would not appear.
The vote gave the go-ahead to the Army Corps of Engineers to proceed with plans to deepen about 35 miles of the Savannah River, allowing supersize ships to reach the Savannah port, which South Carolina officials consider a competitor to Charleston’s port. Environmental groups and coastal Republicans have accused the agency and governor of selling South Carolina’s interests down the river.
The agency’s staff initially denied the water quality certification on Sept. 30, citing unacceptable harm to fragile marshes and endangered fish. Its board could have rejected the Corps’ request for an appeal. But after meeting with Georgia’s governor, Haley asked board chairman Allen Amsler to pass on to the rest of the board that members should hear Georgia out, which they voted to do, Amsler said.
All six members, along with agency leaders, told senators that Haley put no pressure on them to water down the environmental requirements or approve the certification. They also said they would still vote the same way.
The agency’s staff reached an agreement with Georgia and the Army Corps of Engineers, minutes before the board was set to hear the appeal Nov. 10. DHEC directors said they were prepared to argue their case against certification and were shocked that Georgia and the Corps arrived early that morning to resolve the issues. The board unanimously approved the compromise with little discussion.
Senators criticized board members for the lack of debate and for approving a verbal agreement that wasn’t put on paper and signed until five days later.
Board members could not answer specifics on the agreement, repeatedly deferring questions to staff. Relying on staff is normal, they said.
“I defer to their technical expertise on these issues,” said Mark Lutz of Mount Pleasant, vice president of a Massachusetts-based multi-media production company. “I’m not an environmental scientist.”
Sen. Tom Davis said the agency should have weighed into their decision the proposed joint port along the Savannah River in rural Jasper County, 14 miles closer to the ocean, which critics contend DHEC’s decision crushed. The lack of considering alternatives less detrimental to the environment was among the reasons the agency initially gave in denying the certification, but staff testified that those concerns went away when Georgia and the Corps satisfied environmental requirements.
“This is astronomically bad for us,” said Davis, R-Beaufort.
DHEC staff testified the last point of contention was funding to maintain devices the Corps plans to install to inject oxygen into the river. That’s an issue because saltwater intrusion caused by dredging would otherwise further decrease the river’s already low dissolved oxygen levels. Georgia promised to pay if Congress doesn’t.
Also, to mitigate damage to wetlands, Georgia agreed to preserve an additional 1,690 acres of saltwater marsh, on top of the roughly 2,700 acres it already agreed to preserve.