South Carolina’s refusal to grant a permit to deepen the Savannah River is just a bend in the river, say Georgia Ports Authority officials, not a blockade.
“It’s going to get done,” Port of Savannah Director Curtis J. Foltz says. “It’s too important to this region and the nation.”
The question of what’s good for the nation, or the region, is at the heart of the battle between Savannah and the rival Port of Charleston over plans to deepen the river’s 32.5-mile navigation channel to 47 or 48 feet.
South Carolina pushed the argument to a new level Sept. 30 when the state’s Department of Health and Environmental Control turned down the application by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to dredge the channel that forms the state’s border with Georgia to allow Savannah to handle larger ships. The agency said the project, widely seen as crucial to Savannah’s future competitiveness, would hurt fish by cutting the amount of dissolved oxygen in river water and increase salinity in the state’s 1,200 acres of marshlands.
The denial does not necessarily block the approximately $600 million Savannah River Expansion Project, or SHEP. But it is likely to delay final approval by the Army Corps, which was originally expected as early as next summer. The Army Corps said it “must carefully study” the denial by DHEC of water-quality certification before making any decisions on the project.
For Charleston, which has lost ground to Savannah over the past decade in the import business, the decision means more time will be spent considering not only environmental implications of the project but the broad set of national priorities for investing limited federal dollars in infrastructure. Savannah has become the nation’s fourth-largest port for import containers largely because of the big effort GPA has made to attract shippers and the distribution centers that now make Savannah a huge hub for inbound freight. South Carolina officials are trying to make up for lost time in luring business to the South Carolina port, which has a more direct path to open sea.
The Georgia port, which has used its shipper-focused strategy so well, needs the project now to overcome Savannah’s physical limitations, which bump hard against the shipping industry’s inexorable drive toward larger vessels. The GPA wants to deepen the channel from its present 42 feet so it can handle the large post-Panamax container ships that will be able to transit an enlarged Panama Canal after 2014.
Foltz calls the DHEC decision “disappointing and disturbing.” He said the corps had told the GPA that it expected to make a final decision by the middle of next year, following the release of the final Environmental Impact Statement and the General Re-Evaluation Report, which were both originally expected this fall. But Savannah District Corps spokesman Billy Birdwell said the corps had recently undertaken additional analysis of water quality issues that may delay the final decision, and they could not provide a definitive date for the final Record of Decision that must be presented to Congress.
All those reports, studies and decisions are the battleground of what’s become a border war over future container business in the Southeast.
South Carolina’s politicians have been actively working to block SHEP for the last year. State Sen. Larry Grooms, chairman of both the Transportation Committee and the South Carolina State Ports Authority’ Review and Oversight Commission, said he expects state agencies to sue to block the deepening of the river beyond the proposed two-state container port in Jasper County, S.C., which won’t begin to develop for years.
“The Savannah River is a shared resource, so however it is manipulated it needs to benefit both states,” he said. “We’ve got one best shot of dredging the river and the best plan would accommodate (the new) ships up to the proposed Jasper terminal site.”
When South Carolina’s Republican Gov. Nikki Haley took office last November, she declared, “You now have a governor who does not like to lose. Georgia has had their way with us for way too long, and I don’t have the patience to let it happen anymore.”
Georgia officials say it’s late in the game to suddenly block the dredging.
The DHEC agency “has been at the table working with the corps for the last 10 years to develop the mitigation that’s included in the project,” Foltz said.
He said no one was surprised by the DHEC decision to deny the permit, because it had initially denied the permit last December and then withdrawn that decision. “Since that day, the corps has met numerous times with DHEC to work with them to convince them that the project mitigation addresses the concerns that they had. The corps, which is precluded by law from having a bias, said it had dealt with those issues,” said Foltz.
Unlike other port-deepening projects, SHEP has to pass muster with four Cabinet-level agencies before it gets the final go-ahead. Under the terms of the authorizing legislation in the Water Resources Development Act of 1999 giving the corps conditional authority to proceed with SHEP, the plan must get a nod from departments of the Army, the Interior, Commerce and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Once those agencies approve, work would begin on environmental mitigation for SHEP, which will be funded out of the share of the project that is paid for by the local sponsor, the state of Georgia. “The state is well ahead of the game,” Foltz said. “It has already set aside about $130 million for the local sponsor’s share, so immediately after the Record of Decision, the various environmental mitigation work will begin.”
After mitigation, dredging will begin along the entire length of the navigation channel, which includes 18.5 miles out into the Atlantic beyond the bar channel, and 19.5 miles in the river up to Savannah’s Garden City Terminal. The state and the federal government will share the cost of the project, with the state paying about a third of the total cost, which is estimated at $575 million to $625 million.