Army Corps seeks exemption from South Carolina permit amid port-deepening dispute
The Army Corps of Engineers wants Congress to exempt it from a South Carolina permit approval needed for the $650 million deepening of the Savannah River shipping channel.
The required state certification under the federal Clean Water Act has been the subject of a year of political debate and a lawsuit that has wound up before the S.C. Supreme Court.
The corps said it wants the exemption to prevent what it calls “inappropriate delays” for the project.
The corps said last week it gave final approval to the deepening work, a priority for Georgia for 16 years so larger container ships can call at its port when the Panama Canal expansion is complete. The project would deepen the river channel and harbor entrance channel from 42 feet to 47 feet.
The letter seeking the exemption was written Friday to Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, by Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary of the Army for Public Works. The AP acquired a copy Monday.
“Be advised that if Congress authorizes this project or next appropriates funds for construction” it would be providing an exemption, the letter states.
Last year, the board of the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control granted the needed water quality certification, reversing its own staff, which had said the dredging would harm endangered sturgeon in the river and fragile wetlands on the South Carolina shore.
The approval came shortly after Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal visited South Carolina to discuss the issue with Gov. Nikki Haley, who appoints board members. Haley said Deal made a reasonable request and she did not pressure anyone for a specific outcome.
Environmental groups sued, calling the certification illegal because the state’s Savannah River Maritime Commission has authority over dredging decisions.
The state Supreme Court heard arguments this year, and during the hearing, Chief Justice Jean Toal told a DHEC attorney the agency disobeyed the law. The justices have yet to rule.
State lawmakers later passed a law retroactively suspending DHEC’s ability to make dredging decisions concerning the river. While Haley vetoed it, she was overridden with the votes of all but one state lawmaker.
It’s not the only lawsuit stemming from South Carolina review of the deepening project. Environmental groups have sued in federal court saying the project needs a South Carolina pollution permit because it will mean toxic cadmium will be dredged and deposited on the Palmetto State’s shore.