The Georgia Ports Authority may face more hurdles before a project to deepen the Savannah River to 48 feets gets under way, but it looks like the Army Corps of Engineers may be able to start the project in about a year.
The Army Corps this month releases its draft Environmental Impact Statement, an 11-year, $40 million study of the proposed Savannah Harbor Deepening Project, widely known as SHEP, that marks a major step in the port’s plan to welcome post-
Panamax ships after the Panama Canal completes its expansion in 2014.
Public and government agencies began their 45-day period of review and comment of the EIS on Nov. 16, and the comments will be incorporated in the draft EIS in January. The corps then will submit the EIS for review and further revisions by the Commerce Department, the Interior Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army, with the final Record of Decision and permits issued toward the end of 2011.
The action comes as Savannah is staging a strong comeback from last year’s slump, with record container throughput in October, up 16.8 percent year-over-year. The dredging project is critical to the port, the fastest-growing on the East Coast, to enable continued growth in Asia cargo volume.
With a deeper harbor, the port will be able to handle ships with capacities of 8,500 20-foot equivalent units that are expected to be the workhorses of the East Coast’s all-water trade with Asia and the 10,000-TEU ships that eventually will start making calls at the port.
Other major East Coast container ports — including Miami; Jacksonville, Fla.; Charleston, S.C.; Wilmington, N.C.; Baltimore; Philadelphia; and New York-New Jersey — also are racing to complete dredging and expansion projects in hopes of attracting the additional cargo the expanded canal is expected to bring. Not all will be done in time, but the corps’ report gives Savannah a big leg up.
Savannah’s project faces funding challenges amid growing political opposition to increased government spending and may encounter environmental opposition even though the corps and the GPA have included local environmental groups in every step of the 11-year process involved in getting the permits needed to start dredging the river.
“The fourth quarter of 2011 is when we should have a green light to move forward on construction,” said Curtis J. Foltz, executive director of the GPA, who was in Washington this month seeking the federal share of the project’s estimated $550 million to $600 million cost.
Once the hurdles are cleared, Georgia would be responsible for about one-third of the project cost, or $200 million, and the federal government would foot the rest.
“We’re working with our delegation in Washington about getting funding in the administration’s budget for next year,” Foltz said. The corps has already submitted its request for the federal funds for the project, and Foltz and Georgia’s congressional delegation is helping with the request.
The GPA has already received $105 million from the state of Georgia for the state’s share of the project and plans to submit an additional request to the state next year.
“This is such a compelling case for serving commerce for the entire Southeast of the U.S., and the benefit-to-cost ratio of the project is one of the strongest the corps admits it has ever seen,” he said. “The annual benefits of the project in the corps’ economic model exceed $100 million a year, so you add all these things up together with the president’s initiative on exports and they translate into strong support for this project.”
If the Savannah Harbor Deepening Project gets the final go-ahead at the end of 2011, it already has some funding to start spending on land procurement for environmental mitigation. The contracting for the dredging would be awarded immediately after the corps gets the permits.
But there still may be environmental opposition despite more than $200 million in environmental mitigation and 11 years of study.
Foltz said the corps and the GPA have included every environmental group in the study throughout the process. The corps, he said, has “done their due diligence.”
There may be remaining environmental opposition, “but at the end of the day, the science of the project is so strong and the environmental studies that have been done are compelling. The larger and newer ships that this project allows to bring commerce closer to those who use it and produce it will provide environmental enhancements versus negative environmental impact.”
Contact Peter T. Leach at email@example.com.