South Carolina environmental regulators on Friday blocked a permit sought by the Army Corps of Engineers to deepen the Savannah River channel to the Port of Savannah, increasing tension between the states’ competing top ports.
The Georgia Ports Authority wants to deepen 32 miles of the Savannah River to 48 feet from 42 feet to be able to handle megaships able to pass through the expanded Panama Canal in late 2014. The Corps is expected to release its final plan for the harbor expansion later this fall.
But the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control filed documents late Friday saying the harbor deepening would harm the river, which forms a shared boundary between the two states. The agency said the project would harm fish by altering the salinity of 1,200 acres of marsh. The documents are not available online.
"The proposed activity could result in significant degradation to the aquatic ecosystem or remove existing and classified uses of the Savannah River," said the documents filed by South Carolina regulators.
It's unclear how much South Carolina's permit denial will affect plans to deepen the river route to the Savannah port, the fourth busiest container port in the U.S. The next step would be for the Army Corps to appeal the permit denial to South Carolina officials by mid-October.
The deepening of the Savannah River channel has long been contentious between the two states. The Army Corps has proposed plans for mitigating the environmental drawbacks cited by South Carolina, but the state's regulators say they're not satisfied with the solutions. Georgia's Environmental Protection Division, on the other hand, approved its water quality permit for the same project earlier this year, saying its regulators felt the Corps had addressed their concerns.
"The difference of opinions between the Georgia Environmental Division and this action by the S.C. DHEC is disturbing," GPA Executive Director Curtis Foltz, said in a statement. The statement is not available online.
Foltz said he "firmly believes" the Corps' final plans for deepening the harbor will deal with all environmental concerns surrounding the project. Permits for the dredging project were sought from both Georgia and South Carolina because the federal Clean Water Act gives states some leverage to determine if construction projects on their waterways will adversely affect state water quality standards.