The controversial decision by South Carolina regulators to allow the Georgia Ports Authority to deepen the Savannah River came under fire from multiple directions Thursday.
Lawmakers held hearings in Columbia and in Mount Pleasant, where the head of the State Ports Authority said neither the governor nor state regulators asked his opinion on the rival port's project.
Gov. Nikki Haley shot back at her detractors, and an environmental group filed suit over the permit approval.
Legislators continued to blast the Department of Health and Environmental Control board's November ruling as harmful to the Port of Charleston, the state and the environment. The ports of Savannah and Charleston are racing to deepen their shipping channels to handle larger container ships.
Haley has been accused of tilting the DHEC board decision in Georgia's favor in a back-room deal, but senators on a panel in Columbia concluded after hearings that Haley did not act inappropriately.
Meanwhile, in Mount Pleasant, a group of Charleston area lawmakers serving on a port-related committee voted to throw legislative support behind "any entity" that would challenge the DHEC permit decision.
A short time later, the Southern Environmental Law Center announced that it has filed an appeal of the permit.
Charleston port officials and environmental groups have clashed frequently, but have become allies in their opposition to the Savannah dredging project.
State Senate committee clears Haley
A state Senate committee voted 7-3 Thursday to clear Haley on allegations that she used her position to help Georgia win a South Carolina permit to dredge the Savannah port in exchange for political perks.
The senators reached that conclusion after reviewing emails and documents, and listening to two days of testimony from Haley's top four employees and board members and staff from the Department of Health and Environmental Control.
Ted Pitts, Haley's deputy chief of staff and a former Republican lawmaker from Lexington, said Haley did not strike any deals. Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal asked Haley on Oct. 4 to see that DHEC's board would hear Georgia's case for the permit after DHEC staff had first denied it.
Haley then asked DHEC board Chairman Allen Amsler, her political appointee, to give Georgia a hearing. DHEC approved the permit Nov. 10 with new promises on the table, including a 50-year pledge from Georgia to pay for environmental mitigation.
Still, Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Columbia, said Haley acted inappropriately. "You served," Lourie said to Pitts. "You know what it means to pick up the phone and call an agency."
Lawmakers ready to fight
Charleston area legislators agreed Thursday to oppose a state water-quality permit decision allowing the Georgia Ports Authority to deepen the Savannah River, following hours of hearings in Mount Pleasant.
S.C. Ports Authority President Jim Newsome told the committee that decisions about deepening rival ports are "absolutely" a competitive issue, but he never had a discussion with the Department of Health and Environmental Control about the Savannah River dredging. Georgia's plan would allow the Port of Savannah to handle larger cargo ships.
Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Isle of Palms, said the dredging would so deplete the river of dissolved oxygen that machines would be needed to pump oxygen into the water, like the devices used in fish tanks.
"I've never seen an environmental impact that so clearly merits denying a permit," he said.
The committee also was told that the DHEC board overstepped its authority by excluding the Savannah River Maritime Commission and the Department of Natural Resources from the decision-making, and violated state law by failing to consider alternatives to the dredging.
"I don't think this issue is going away any time soon," said Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston, chairman of the county's delegation.
Haley decries 'political games'
Gov. Nikki Haley said the Legislature is playing political games while she leads South Carolina with actions.
"Enough is enough," Haley said. "The political games are slowing our state down at a time when we should be winning."
"We'll win, because I am in charge," she said. "But it sure would be a lot better if I had a Legislature that would work with me."
Her comments came Thursday after a panel of senators concluded a fact-finding mission and cleared the governor of allegations that she pulled strings to help Georgia win a permit to dredge the Savannah River.
The concern is that the dredging will severely damage the river, wetlands and aquatic life and put the Port of Charleston at a disadvantage.
The state Department of Health and Environmental Control board -- appointed by Haley -- approved the permit Nov. 10. Haley counts packing the DHEC board with business-friendly appointees as one of her accomplishments.
Haley said lawmakers sat idle for the past decade while Georgia added distribution centers and infrastructure that helped the Savannah port attract more container shipping than Charleston.
Environmental groups sue
The Southern Environmental Law Center on Thursday filed a challenge to a South Carolina permit allowing the Georgia Ports Authority to dredge 38 miles of the Savannah River shipping lane to a depth of 48 feet.
The center is representing the Savannah Waterkeeper, Coastal Conservation League and South Carolina Wildlife Federation. Additional challenges to the Department of Health and Environmental Control board's water quality decision are expected to follow.
Dana Beach, executive director of the Coastal Conservation League, said it would make environmental and financial sense to deepen Charleston Harbor instead of the Savannah River. The Savannah River dredging threatens rare freshwater marshes and endangered short-nosed sturgeon, he said, and would cost twice the taxpayer money as deepening the Charleston harbor.
"The worst outcome for taxpayers and our resources is to blindly approve the most expensive and destructive project first," Beach said.