U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel of Charleston on Wednesday approved a settlement ending a legal challenge to the $650 million deepening of the Savannah River shipping channel that could have delayed the project for years.
“We’re looking for some common ground,” he said, thanking the attorneys for working out their differences. “Nobody wants to damage the environment, and nobody wants to disrupt an important public project.”
The Georgia ports want the river deepened from its current 42 feet to 47 feet to handle a new generation of larger containerships.
Environmental groups in South Carolina and Georgia sued last year contending that deepening the 32-mile channel will dredge toxic cadmium from the river while dumping it on the South Carolina shore. They said the project needed a South Carolina pollution permit.
The complaint against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was brought by the Southern Environmental Law Center on behalf of the Savannah Riverkeeper based in Augusta, Ga., the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League and the South Carolina Wildlife Federation.
Later the South Carolina Savannah River Maritime Commission joined with the plaintiffs even as the Georgia Ports Authority joined the case on the side of the Corps.
Under the settlement reached in April after months of mediation, the Corps will provide more environmental monitoring and the Georgia Ports Authority will provide millions of dollars for conservation efforts and transfer 2,000 acres of marsh to South Carolina.
The settlement allows the deepening to proceed and attorneys for both sides agreed it was fair.
“We think this is an eminently fair and reasonable settlement,” said Chris DeScherer, representing the Southern Environmental Law Center.
Norman Rave of the U.S. Justice Department, representing the Corps, echoed that view as did attorneys for the Maritime Commission and the Georgia Ports Authority.
“Like any settlement, you don’t get everything you want,” DeScherer said later. “But in this case I think all parties got enough that it made sense to resolve it as opposed to spending a decade arguing and litigating.”
After the lawsuits were filed, the Corps said it was prepared to argue permits from either state were unnecessary because the federal agency has overriding authority over the nation’s navigable waterways. A federal judge agreed with that argument in a 2010 legal dispute between Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey over plans to deepen the Delaware River.
Billy Birdwell, a spokesman for the Army Corps’ Savannah District, said the agency agreed to settle in part to keep the lawsuits from slowing down the deepening.
“Litigation takes a while and sometimes can take a long time,” Birdwell said. “With a settlement that all the parties agreed was fair and reasonable, it allows us to move forward without further delay.”
The settlement does give the plaintiffs the right to terminate the agreement if one of several conditions is not met, including if equipment designed to replenish oxygen in the water does not work. But Gergel, noting he is keeping the case under court jurisdiction, said he wants to prevent things from getting to that point.
He said he will require the court be notified 15 days before any party files notice of termination. The judge said he would then order more mediation.
“The purpose is to avoid the next steps to termination,” he said. “I’m certain there will be circumstances none of us ever envisioned.”
The mediation was conducted by former U.S. Rep. John Spratt of South Carolina and U.S. Magistrate Judge Bruce Hendricks.
Spratt said when he was asked to mediate “I thought this was a reach — a long shot.” But he praised the attorneys for working it out.
“All deserve credit for taking the long view, not just for their clients but for our state and the state of Georgia,” he said.
Russ Bynum of the AP contributed to this report.