DHEC gets port fight: Agency to decide on Savannah River dredging permit

The ongoing fight between the ports of Savannah, partially shown here, and Charleston for more business — and bigger ships — goes to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control on Thursday.

COLUMBIA -- South Carolina's skirmish with Georgia for port supremacy along the South Atlantic will focus this week on a rare marsh system and endangered fish that are in the way of bigger ships that Savannah leaders want for their harbor.

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control board is expected to decide Thursday whether to issue a water- quality permit that would allow the dredging and deepening of the Savannah River, where the port of Savannah is located.

At stake are untold millions in additional revenue that could flow to Savannah if larger ships can reach the Georgia port. But that won't happen unless the Savannah River is deepened by about six feet, Georgia officials say.

DHEC, South Carolina's chief environmental regulatory agency, is involved in the dredging dispute because the Savannah River is shared by both states.

The outcome of Thursday's hearing is unlikely to end the dispute because the environmental agency's is sure to be challenged by the losing party. But if the board turns down the permit, it would further solidify South Carolina's reservations about the dredging project's impact on the environment.

The decision will be the most significant by DHEC since S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley installed new board members earlier this year.

At issue for the agency is whether the harbor-dredging project would increase the salinity of the Savannah River and decrease the amount of oxygen in the river. Either could threaten an unusual, tidally influenced freshwater marsh and the federally protected shortnose sturgeon, a chorus of South Carolina critics say.

Georgia officials dispute that.

All told, some 1,200 acres of wetlands could be affected by the dredging, records show.

"It is a terribly damaging and expensive project," said Charleston conservationist Dana Beach, a leading critic of the Savannah dredging. "The environmental damage is almost catastrophic."

South Carolina and Georgia are racing to deepen their main ports so they can attract larger container ships that will begin moving through an expanded Panama Canal in 2014.

The state that has its port ready first could have the edge in drawing those ships.

Charleston's harbor-deepening plans are not as far along as Savannah's $600 million project because of funding squabbles.

Georgia officials say deepening Savannah's shipping channel is vital to commerce. They also say South Carolina's concerns about the environment are overblown.

Georgia officials have been seeking to dredge the shipping channel since the 1990s, but environmental concerns have slowed their plans.

"There is a green aspect to this, but it is not the environment," said Brian Robinson, a spokesman for Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal. "The green is dollars. This is exactly the sort of infrastructure project we need as a nation, as a region and as two states standing together."

Robinson noted 40 percent of the Georgia port's work force is from South Carolina, mostly residents of Beaufort and Jasper counties. But many government officials, business leaders and environmental groups in South Carolina say Charleston Harbor is more naturally suited to handle the larger ships.

Unlike Savannah, Charleston Harbor is nearer the ocean and dredging it would have fewer environmental impacts, they say. In contrast, the Georgia port is miles up the river and more difficult for ships to reach, South Carolina critics say. Dredging the channel could push saltwater farther up the river and into the rare marsh system in South Carolina's Savannah National Wildlife Refuge, scientists have said.

Influenced by tides, the Savannah River's freshwater marshes are fragile because salt water will kill the diversity of plants that thrive there.