State Senate adds muscle to Georgia-South Carolina port fight

The Port of Savannah on the Savannah River.

The fate of two ports on the Savannah River, and the river itself, continues to be South Carolina's political hot potato.

In Columbia, the state Senate took up a resolution Tuesday to reverse a controversial Department of Health and Environmental Control board decision approving Georgia's plan to deepen the Savannah River. The resolution sponsored by Sen. Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, was co-sponsored by every member of the Senate and would suspend DHEC's authority over Savannah River dredging and related matters, retroactive to 2007.

"Myself and my staff counsel looked very carefully at the constitution, and we have the right to suspend (DHEC's authority)," McConnell said.

The Savannah River dredging plan calls for deepening about three dozen miles of river to a depth of 48 feet, to accommodate larger container ships destined for Georgia's Garden City Terminal.

Opponents say the plan would destroy rare freshwater marshes, leave the river so oxygen-depleted that machinery would be needed to inject oxygen into the water, and give the Georgia port a competitive edge,

while at the same time harming plans to build a second Savannah River port, in Jasper County on the South Carolina side of the river.

"I call it the rape of the river," McConnell said. "That's what it is."

The U.S. Clean Water Act certification needed for the plan was approved by the DHEC board in November -- reversing a staff decision to deny the permit -- after Gov. Nikki Haley asked her appointees on the board to give Georgia a hearing. Haley has defended the DHEC board, saying the dredging plan would have proceeded regardless, and that the board was able to extract some concessions.

The DHEC board decision is set to face legal challenges from the Southern Environmental Law Center and South Carolina's Savannah River Maritime Commission. The Senate joint resolution could undo the DHEC decision if the House were to agree and the governor were to sign it.

A spokesman for DHEC said that due to staff being unavailable, he was unable to provide a response to the resolution, which states DHEC "unlawfully usurped" the authority of the Savannah River Maritime Commission and approved a permit that "could present imminent and irreversible public health and environmental concerns."

Opponents of the DHEC decision include state lawmakers from both political parties, environmental groups and Charleston port interests.

The permit and the plan to deepen the Savannah River have also raised questions about the fate of the bi-state Jasper Ocean Terminal, a new multibillion-dollar port proposed on the South Carolina side of the river, closer to the ocean. State Ports Authority officials have been adamant that it would be pointless to build a port on a river that's not at least 50 feet deep.

While objecting to plans to dredge the Savannah further upstream, SPA officials want to see the river deepened to 50 feet at the Jasper location, with a channel wide enough that container ships could pass in opposite directions.

In South Carolina, concerns also have been raised about plans to deposit dredge material, which might contain heavy metals, on the Jasper site. Georgia officials say putting the dredge spoils there will save more than $300 million, toward the cost of raising the area for a port terminal.

"This is as bad as when the Indians sold Manhattan for $27 in trinkets, but at least they got trinkets," McConnell said. "All we get is toxic sludge."

Last month the SPA board voted to withhold additional funding for the Jasper project -- more than $5 million has been spent so far -- and further action could have come at a meeting Tuesday of the Jasper Ocean Terminal Joint Project Office, the bi-state authority set up to run the project.

SPA board member and current Joint Project Office Chairman David Posek said that meeting was postponed at Haley's request.

"We've been asked to postpone the meeting until a meeting of the two governors can take place," he said.

Spokesmen for Haley and Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal confirmed the plan to meet and discuss the Jasper port issue.

"As Governor Haley has made clear, she is as committed as ever to working toward a viable Jasper Ocean Terminal," said spokesman Rob Godfrey. "What is also clear is the status quo isn't working, and so we are taking a new tack, sitting down with Governor Deal and ports leaders from both states."

Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said Georgia also is committed to the new terminal.

"We're going to need that capacity in the future, and it will benefit both states," he said. "There's never any harm in two governors ... getting together and trying to figure out how to create more jobs on both sides of our border."