River deepening suit to proceed

Container ships load and unload boxes at the Georgia Ports Authority's Garden City Terminal on the Savannah River. (Savannah Morning News/File)

COLUMBIA — A federal judge has refused to dismiss a lawsuit over a pollution permit for the $650 million deepening of the Savannah River shipping channel.

U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel of Charleston wrote in an order released late last week that the time is right to hear the case against the Army Corps of Engineers over the project. The deepening of the 38-mile channel is expected to begin in the spring.

The lawsuit was filed by the Southern Environmental Law Center on behalf of the Augusta, Ga.-based Savannah Riverkeeper, the Charleston-based Coastal Conservation League and the Columbia-based S.C. Wildlife Federation. The deepening is being sought so the Georgia ports can accommodate larger container ships that will routinely call on East Coast ports when the Panama Canal is expanded and deepened by 2014.

The environmental groups say the long-awaited project will dredge up toxic cadmium in river silt that will be dumped on the S.C. side of the river that divides the state from Georgia.

They want Gergel to decide if the Army Corps needs a pollution permit issued by a South Carolina agency, arguing they don’t have to wait until environmental damage actually occurs before they try to prevent it.

The Army Corps had asked Gergel to dismiss the suit, saying the plaintiffs have not been harmed and that the case is premature. But on Friday, Gergel wrote that this is a good time to hear the case, given that construction on the project is set to begin in less than a year.

“This long and arduous planning and approval process is rapidly coming to completion,” Gergel wrote. “Plaintiffs need not wait for dissolvable oxygen levels to drop in the Savannah River or cadmium contaminated clay to be discharged into the environment before they have standing to sue.”

Gergel also asked the parties to give him an update on other lawsuits over the deepening project.