Federal judge order mediation in Savannah deeping project
A federal judge in Charleston has ordered the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, Savannah River Maritime Commission and environmentalists to come together to find a compromise in the heated dispute about dredging the Savannah River.
Monday’s order by U.S. District Court Judge Richard Mark Gergel comes days after the S.C. Supreme Court ruled the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control’s board violated state law in approving a water quality permit for the $650 million deepening of the river’s shipping channel.
Georgia wants to deepen the waterway to accommodate larger container ships at the Port of Savannah in Garden City. Opponents in South Carolina said the project would harm the environment, and also put the Port of Charleston at a competitive disadvantage.
The Port of Charleston is also pursuing a plan to deepen its shipping channel to 50 feet from 45 feet, to accommodate the massive container ships that will soon be able to pass through the Panama Canal, which is being expanded.
On Friday, the state Supreme Court sided with environmentalists who sued, challenging the DHEC board’s approval of the permit needed to deepen the Savannah River.
The court agreed the state’s Savannah River Maritime Commission was charged with matters concerning the river, and threw out the permit approval decision. As a result, an earlier DHEC staff decision to deny the permit took effect.
The Supreme Court’s decision came days after the Army Corps of Engineers in Georgia announced its approval to deepen the river to 47 feet from 42 feet and plans to seek congressional approval of an exemption of South Carolina’s Clean Water Act certification. The Corps said it wanted to prevent “inappropriate delays” to the project because of the ongoing lawsuit.
Earlier this year, the Southern Environmental Law Center filed the federal complaint, arguing the project requires a South Carolina pollution control permit.
Gergel said in his order that the Supreme Court rendered the pollution control permit moot.
He ordered all groups to try mediate the dispute with former South Carolina Rep. John Spratt “in the near future.” Gergel also directed the Army Corps to provide the court with copies of all formal correspondence with Congress regarding the plan to seek an exemption from state permitting requirements.
Billy Birdwell, a spokesman for the Army Corps’ Savannah district, said the agency was still reviewing the judge’s decision Monday and could not comment on it.
Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Bonneau, a member of the Maritime Commission, said Gergel’s order shows that South Carolina should have a say in projects that affect the river.
“By doing this, the court recognizes that South Carolina has concerns that need to be addressed,” he said.
Grooms noted the Maritime Commission “was created for negotiating with the state of Georgia for matters of the Savannah River.”
Blan Holman, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said the Army Corps’ request to bypass South Carolina environmental approvals was “premature and also somewhat inappropriate”
“The project will gravely impact South Carolina — that’s why South Carolina has environmental laws,” he said. “The Corps should abide by those laws and not seek a way to avoid them.”
Reach Tyrone Richardson at 937-5550 and follow him on Twitter @tyrichardsonPC.