Army Corps endorses deeper Savannah River to accommodate larger ships
The Army Corps of Engineers recommended Wednesday that the Savannah River be deepened to 47 feet, at a cost of $652 million, to accommodate larger container ships.
To comment on the Savannah River deepening plan, write by May 20 to: Headquarters, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, CECW-P (SA), 7701 Telegraph Road, Alexandria, VA 22315-3860.
On the South Carolina side of the river, which forms a border with Georgia, opponents ranging from conservation groups to state lawmakers have criticized the dredging plan.
“The bottom line is, the proposal to dredge to 47 feet is a proposal to spend more than $650 million on a plan that doesn’t accomplish the project’s purpose,” said Dana Beach, director of the Coastal Conservation League. “But it does create severe and irreparable environmental damage.”
While opponents say the plan would waste taxpayer money by leaving the river too shallow for next-generation container ships, while ruining rare freshwater marshes and harming wildlife, the corps reached the opposite conclusion. Georgia officials applauded the decision.
“The final report represents the most comprehensive study for harbor deepening in the nation’s history,” said Col. Jeff M. Hall, commander of the Savannah District. “We are confident that our report is thorough and strong, and that the project will enhance the nation’s global competitiveness while sustaining the natural environment.”
The plan laid out in the corps’ environmental impact statement — a key document in the approval process — would cost about $50 million more than expected, while falling a foot short of the Georgia Ports Authority’s hoped-for depth.
The Savannah River shipping channel is currently 42 feet at mean low water, and would be deepened by 5 feet under the plan. Costs would be shared by the state and federal governments.
A “record of decision” document that would allow construction to begin is expected this year, according to the corps. In South Carolina, several lawsuits challenging permits for the dredging plan are working their way through state and federal courts.
The state Supreme Court has agreed to adjudicate a question of authority between the Department of Health and Environmental Control and the Savannah River Maritime Commission. Meanwhile, a federal court will consider whether Georgia’s project requires a South Carolina pollution control permit, and an administrative law judge looks at a challenge to a DHEC permit.
The Southern Environmental Law Center is involved in all three cases. Blan Holman, an attorney for the law center, said the corps’ plan to deepen the Savannah to 47 feet rather than 48 does not change much.
Holman said the dredging still would compromise the river to the point that mechanical devices would be needed to bubble oxygen into the water to keep fish alive.
“The damage they are going to do is still sufficiently bad that they will need the bubblers, an iron lung for the river,” he said.
According to the corps, $292 million of the project cost would go toward environmental mitigation.
“Environmental features include flow-rerouting for marsh restoration, a fish bypass upstream near Augusta for the endangered Shortnose Sturgeon, a dissolved oxygen injection system, recovery of the ironclad CSS Georgia, a 10-year post-construction monitoring period, and more,” a corps statement said.
While Georgia tries to deepen the Savannah River, South Carolina is working to get the Charleston shipping channel deepened to 50 feet or more, from the current 45 feet. An Army Corps study of that plan began last year.
While the majority of South Carolina lawmakers, port officials and environmentalists oppose Georgia’s plan to deepen the Savannah River for 38 miles, from the Atlantic Ocean to Garden City, many support the idea of deepening the Savannah up to the site of the proposed multibillion-dollar Jasper Ocean Terminal.
The Jasper port would be shared by the two states and located on the South Carolina side, on what is now a dredge spoil area. The site is about 14 miles closer to the ocean than the Port of Savannah, and the Coastal Conservation League says dredging to the Jasper site “would not pose the same threat to the estuary habitat” as dredging to Garden City.
The Georgia Ports Authority said the corps’ environmental impact statement is an important milestone, and the findings strike the right balance between the needs of industry and the environment.
“Today’s announcement brings to an end 15 years of exhaustive due diligence,” said Alec Poitevint, the Georgia Ports Authority’s chairman. “With this important step forward, we are closer to putting in place infrastructure that will create economic opportunities across many industries and state lines.”
Georgia had been requesting a river depth of 48 feet.
South Carolina State Ports Authority officials repeatedly have said that a depth of less than 50 feet would be insufficient for the planned Jasper Ocean Terminal and the massive next-generation container ships that would be expected to call there.
Reach David Slade at 937-5552 or Twitter @DSladeNews.