Georgia ports chief Curtis Foltz talks unity

Curtis Foltz

Speaking before a room full of South Carolina maritime leaders, Georgia Ports Authority Executive Director Curtis Foltz offered a disclaimer: He's no navigational or environmental expert, nor is he an attorney -- but he would field their questions about the controversial Savannah Harbor Expansion Project anyway.

"I'm not sure who was more surprised, the call I got inviting me here or my accepting it," Foltz said Thursday night at The Citadel's Altman Athletic Center, where he addressed members of the Propeller Club of Charleston at a dinner meeting.

Foltz spoke to the virtues of both the harbor expansion and a joint South Carolina-Georgia shipping terminal along the border in Jasper County.

South Carolina environmental experts have said that the harbor expansion could cause tremendous ecological damage if the channel is dredged too deep, while South Carolina navigational experts fear that the new generation of container ships could run aground most days of the year if the channel is left too shallow.

As for Jasper, South Carolina officials managed to stall the project at a meeting last month, because of the questions about the harbor expansion and the potential effect on Jasper. The agency set up to oversee the terminal's progress, under pressure from its Palmetto State members, adopted a budget not to exceed $500,000 for the year. That allows the agency to proceed with work approved last year but does not fund two new studies to move it forward.

Acknowledging that the Savannah River divides the states both physically and politically, Foltz said, "In the business we're in, it's a river that needs to bring us together."

Not to say a few of the questions from this side of it didn't stump him.

Emcee Robert New, president of Charleston Port Services, pointed out that the harbor expansion project study is modeled after 140-foot-wide ships, smaller than some vessels calling the Port of Charleston even now. Ships only get larger as the Panama Canal expansion deadline of 2014 nears.

For safety's sake, New asked, shouldn't the project -- and Georgia's harbor pilots who will guide the ships in and out -- take into account those giant vessels?

"They're comfortable with what's included in the model today, the navigational features designed," Foltz answered. "We'll move forward with that."

New also pointed out another safety issue -- the difficulty in controlling ships at restricted speeds -- and asked if Foltz agrees that the problem needs to be addressed before proceeding with the harbor expansion.

"I am not qualified to answer that question," Foltz replied.

The harbor expansion study took 12 years and $40 million, a frequent criticism that Foltz turned around to describe it as thoroughly researched.

Asked about one environmental expert's commentary that the models are incorrect, he said, "Forty million dollars in environmental studies for 12 years. Do you really think somebody shortchanged it?"

Foltz highlighted the need for federal funding to take Savannah and Charleston deeper, showing that Savannah holds title as the shallowest major port in the world today at 42 feet, with Charleston only a few feet ahead of it at 45 feet. Given the Southeast's population growth, he also pointed to the need for a Jasper terminal to handle the spillover shipping business in the future.

"If both states get on board, that facility's not built for 15, 20 years," Foltz said. "In 20 years everything in Charleston's going to be full and everything in Savannah's going to be full."