Panel votes to limit dredging to 45 feet

Container ships can reach the Georgia Ports Authority’s Garden City Terminal only by navigating the Savannah River.

COLUMBIA — A state board voted Tuesday to limit the deepening of the Savannah River for a Georgia port project, saying the cap could potentially save hundreds of millions of dollars and lessen the environmental impact of the dredging.

The Savannah River Maritime Commission unanimously voted to direct the Army Corps of Engineers to limit the dredging to 45 feet instead of the 47 feet the corps recommended.

The commission represents South Carolina’s interests on the river shared between South Carolina and Georgia.

The deepening is intended to allow Georgia’s port in Savannah to handle the larger ships that are expected to follow the completion of the Panama Canal expansion in 2014. The current depth is 42 feet.

“The dredging at 45 feet has significantly less of an impact on wetlands,” said commission Chairman Dean Moss. “Essentially, everything gets better at 45 feet.”

Moss said the 45-foot limit also could save potentially hundreds of millions in state and federal and money that would be needed to deepen the additional two feet.

The corps’ Savannah District could appeal the commission’s order or challenge it in court.

Commissioners said Tuesday that the corps underestimated the environmental impact of the dredging and overestimated the effectivess of its plan to limit the damage to wildlife.

For example, commissioners have said the corps’ plan to allow fish to survive the deepening is questionable.

The corps wants to use a dozen machines, called Speece cones, to inject dissolved oxygen into the river to compensate for an expected drop in the amount of dissolved oxygen fish in the harbor would have to breathe.

Moss said the machines are unproven.

State Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Bonneau, a member of the commission, said the board has been concerned for some time about the potential environmental damage the deepening of the Georgia port could bring.

“The Savannah River is a shared resource, and to needlessly destroy the environment is really unacceptable,” Grooms said.

A spokesman for the corps’ Savannah District said he could not comment on the commission’s order until he had seen the details.

A spokesman for the Georgia Ports Authority did not respond to a request for comment.

The commission also voted Tuesday to demand a report from Georgia officials detailing the potential impacts of building a port facility in Jasper County on top of the sludge Georgia plans to dump on the site.

Attorney General Alan Wilson, who is representing the commission in court, updated commissioners on the legal fights surrounding the controversial Georgia dredging plan during a half-hour closed-door session before the votes Tuesday.

Reach Stephen Largen at 864-641-8172 and follow him on Twitter @stephenlargen.