Port to spend $5M to offset harbor-deepening impact

The port's $5 million Cooper River conservation effort was announced at Silk Hope Plantation (above) near Huger.

The State Ports Authority's board of directors voted Monday to spend $5 million toward the protection of the Cooper River corridor in an effort to help mitigate the environmental impact of deepening Charleston Harbor.

The money will be placed into an escrow account, and it will be used to purchase and conserve land along the watershed in a new collaboration with the Lowcountry Open Land Trust, the Coastal Conservation League and the Southern Environmental Law Center, the maritime agency announced Monday.

The Charleston-based land trust would oversee expenditures from the escrow account, and the money would come from funds the General Assembly already has set aside for the harbor deepening. The collaborative effort still needs approval from the state's Joint Bond Review Committee before it is final.

Any land conservation would be in addition to wetlands mitigation ordered by the Army Corps of Engineers as part of its harbor deepening, which is expected to start after the federal permitting agency completes it final environmental impact report later this year.

Gov. Nikki Haley said the cooperation between business and environmental groups that typically are adversaries has put South Carolina at an economic advantage over its neighbors.

"Today is a day that we say yes to both conservation and business - that they can be married together," Haley told about 100 state business, political and environmental leaders as the collaboration was announced overlooking the east branch of the Cooper River at Silk Hope Plantation.

Elizabeth Hagood, executive director of the Lowcountry Open Land Trust, said the collaboration "epitomizes the power of cooperation" and "proves that economic growth and conservation of our natural resources goes hand in hand."

The land trust already holds 5,182 acres of conservation easements covering 6.5 miles along the Cooper River corridor. All told, about 56,000 acres of Cooper River corridor property are permanently protected by conservation and historic preservation groups. The SPA's money would help purchase some of the remaining 15,000 acres that are not yet protected.

"By saving the assets we'll need in the future, we can enable economic success," said Dana Beach, executive director of the Coastal Conservation League.

"A critical but underappreciated result of land protection is that it provides the opportunity for continued economic progress," Beach said. "The relationship between conservation and economic development is not only positive, it's an essential relationship."

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The SPA board met at the Berkeley County plantation, which is owned by former port chairman and retired South Carolina banker Bob Royall. About half of Silk Hope's 1,100 acres are protected under a 2006 conservation easement.

The agreement with conservationists was the only item on the board's agenda Monday.

The SPA wants the Army Corps to deepen the harbor's shipping channel to 52 feet from 45 feet so it can accommodate the growing fleet of longer, heavier cargo vessels. The Army Corps is expected to seek federal funding after it completes its environmental report.

The total cost of the dredging project has been estimated at $509 million, with 60 percent of the funds coming from the state. If approved, the federal government would fund the remaining 40 percent.

"Deepening the Charleston Harbor to 52 feet will have a lasting impact on the competitiveness and economic development efforts of South Carolina, and likewise the conservation commitment announced today carries permanent significance to our region and state," said Jim Newsome, the SPA's chief executive officer.