It may turn out there is a raw political gambit lurking behind the objections South Carolina has raised to the proposed Savannah River deepening. That is, the objections are built on an effort to revive the Port of Charleston at the expense of its more successful competitor, Georgia’s Port of Savannah.
Savannah officials and local Savannah media have stated this view in no uncertain terms. They say it’s strange that after Georgia officials have slogged through a decade-long process seeking approvals to deepen the channel to Savannah’s Garden City terminals to make the port more accessible for post-Panamax ships, South Carolina has only recently started raising serious objections. And the increasingly heated objections come with the Panama Canal expansion just a little more than three years away.
A recent Savannah Morning News editorial titled “Sour Grapes” said, “South Carolina officials should end their attempt to delay the Savannah harbor deepening,” noting South Carolina might be “jealous of the booming success of the Georgia Ports Authority.”
But there is one area where South Carolina’s concerns can’t be so easily dismissed.
The issue stems from the 2007 agreement by the two states’ governors to jointly develop a new container terminal on the South Carolina side of the river in Jasper County, S.C. It was a deal hailed as a vision of bi-state and regional cooperation akin to the formation of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. It would seal the future of the region as the dominant container gateway for the Southeast U.S. once it opens in or around 2025.
The problem, as South Carolina officials see it, is the current proposed deepening project was not designed with the Jasper facility in mind; in fact, it envisioned the proposed Jasper terminal site as a deposit location for dredged material, not a future terminal. They note the expanded channel simply would not accommodate the levels of ship traffic that would serve both the Jasper and Garden City facilities. That was the conclusion of a research report done in 2009 by John Cameron, the former Coast Guard captain overseeing both Charleston and Savannah who is now executive director of the Charleston Branch Pilots.
The research on the impact on the proposed Jasper terminal, done for the South Carolina Legislature, concluded the expanded channel under the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project, or SHEP, would be too narrow for two-way ship traffic, causing delays for ships entering and leaving the facility. And it said it would not be deep enough to handle post-Panamax ships without significant tidal restrictions. “We did not believe the (Savannah River deepening) is deep enough, wide enough or long enough,” said Dean Moss, chairman of the Savannah Maritime Commission, a group created to represent South Carolina’s interests in the Savannah River.
Such limitations suggest a second deepening project would be needed before Jasper could be built. “If South Carolina’s objectives for a Jasper terminal are to handle post-Panamax ships without having to wait for tide, then this deepening project doesn’t get you there,” Cameron said. “Therefore, a subsequent deepening project would be necessary to provide that capability.”
And that raises other concerns. If the Savannah River deepening project proceeds as the Army Corps of Engineers proposes, it would push the river to its ecological limits in terms of saltwater intrusion into freshwater and other issues, raising the possibility that additional later deepening would never obtain the necessary environmental approvals.
“The environmental impact the corps is projecting for the SHEP project are significant,” Moss said. “So when you come back for a second bite at the apple, what would the impact be? It might fall under the heading of paranoia, but it is certainly something to think about and something we would like the corps to help us understand.”
Of course, that’s raising environmental questions about a project that doesn’t exist for a terminal that does exist and is not even part of the SHEP design. The Corps of Engineers could decide that makes any complaints irrelevant, but that could only inflame matters between the two states even further.