The fate of the long-planned Savannah Harbor Expansion Project remains undecided after a federal judge ruled against the dismissal of an environmentalists’ lawsuit aimed at blocking a pollution permit for the $650 million deepening of the Savannah River shipping channel.
U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel wrote in an order released late last week that the time is right to hear the case against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over the project. The deepening of the 38-mile channel to 47 feet from the current 42 feet is expected to begin in the spring.
The lawsuit was filed by the Southern Environmental Law Center on behalf of the Augusta, Ga.-based Savannah Riverkeeper, the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League and the South Carolina Wildlife Federation. The deepening is being sought so the Georgia ports can accommodate larger container ships that will routinely be calling when the Panama Canal is deepened in 2014.
The environmental groups say the long-awaited project will dredge up toxic cadmium in river silt that will be dumped on the South Carolina side of the river that divides the state from Georgia. They want Gergel to decide whether the corps needs a pollution permit issued by a South Carolina agency, arguing that they do not have to wait until environmental damage actually occurs before they try to prevent it.
The corps had asked Gergel to dismiss the suit, saying the plaintiffs have not been harmed and that the case is premature. But on Friday, Gergel wrote that this is a good time to hear the case, given that construction on the project is set to begin in less than a year.
“This long and arduous planning and approval process is rapidly coming to completion,” Gergel wrote. “Plaintiffs need not wait for dissolvable oxygen levels to drop in the Savannah River or cadmium contaminated clay to be discharged into the environment before they have standing to sue.”