The Savannah River is the battle line in what one lawmaker calls "this war between Savannah and Charleston," but all the fighting is happening on the South Carolina side.
In the latest skirmish, South Carolina's Savannah River Maritime Commission on Monday declared invalid the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control's decision to permit a massive dredging program.
Whether the commission has the authority to invalidate DHEC's permit for the Georgia Ports Authority's Garden City Terminal dredging project is a matter of dispute, but it is clear that the stakes are high.
South Carolina lawmakers and environmentalists say the proposal, to dredge more than 30 miles of the Savannah River to a depth of 48 feet, would harm aquatic life and salt marsh areas. Lawmakers are equally focused on how the project could impact South Carolina ports business.
"There are tens of thousands of jobs hanging on who will succeed in this war between Savannah and Charleston," said Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Bonneau, who participated in the Savannah River Maritime Commission's unanimous vote to declare the DHEC permit void.
"Our state stands to gain a tremendous amount of business and the jobs that will follow," Grooms said.
Savannah and Charleston each are pursuing expensive plans to deepen their harbors to accommodate the huge container ships that are expected to call on the ports when the deepening of the Panama Canal is completed in 2014.
South Carolina and Georgia also are partners in a plan to develop the $5 billion Jasper Ocean Terminal, a new port on the Savannah River about six miles closer to the ocean than Georgia's Garden City Terminal. But State Ports Authority officials say Jasper is unlikely to happen if the dredging for the Garden City goes forward.
SPA President Jim Newsome has said the Jasper project won't make sense unless the Savannah River can be deepened to at least 50 feet, and wide enough for two-way shipping, as far as the Jasper site. He and others say that if a 48-foot deepening is approved now, further deepening for Jasper would be unlikely to happen.
Georgia Ports Authority President Curtis Foltz disagrees, saying in a recent interview that "the deepening will benefit the Jasper project and will save hundreds of millions of dollars in improving the site itself."
At the end of September, the staff of DHEC denied a permit for the Garden City dredging, but the appointed DHEC board reversed that decision last week after Georgia agreed to conditions, including paying for devices to inject oxygen into the river, and protection of an additional 1,500 acres of marsh.
There was a furious response from lawmakers such as Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Charleston, who called the decision "hasty, ridiculous and ill-advised."
On Monday, after the Savannah River Maritime Commission's action, Grooms said: "The Georgia fans were all cheering because they had declared their biggest victory, but a flag was thrown on the play, and I'm the guy standing over the flag."
The immediate question now is, are there any teeth in the commission's action?
DHEC spokesman Adam Myrick said the issue was settled more than a year ago, when then-Attorney General Henry McMaster gave an advisory opinion to the commission, which stated: "DHEC is solely responsible for issuing or denying the 401 water quality certification."
Section 401 of the federal Clean Water Act gives states a role in permitting projects such as the proposed dredging.
Myrick said the 2010 opinion by McMaster makes it clear the commission has no jurisdiction.
"We've been acting under that opinion," Myrick said. "It's not ambiguous."
Grooms said he and other members of the commission, including Merrill, disagree.
"We're in charge of issues related to the Savannah River," Grooms said. "We contend that no dredging can occur without the permission of the Savannah Maritime Commission."
A trip to see a judge is likely the next step in the permit fight, both sides agree.
Haley to speak in Charleston
Gov. Nikki Haley is scheduled to address an audience of Port of Charleston advocates this evening, as controversy continues to swirl around the actions of the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control board regarding a water-quality permit for the Savannah River deepening project.
Haley is scheduled to speak at the annual state-of-the-port dinner and meeting held by the Propeller Club of Charleston, a membership organization representing maritime interests.
Rob Godfrey, Haley's spokesman, has said Haley trusts that the DHEC board's decision to permit the dredging for the Savannah River port is 'in the best interest of South Carolina.' Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have strongly disagreed, and Democrats have questioned Haley's role in the decision-making process.
Follow @DSladeNews on Twitter for live coverage of Haley's appearance.