Port railroad fight gets hotter

North Charleston wants to allow rail access from the north end of the former Navy base to the new port.

North Charleston officials said they've uncovered a "smoking gun" e-mail that proves the State Ports Authority is deep in the effort to bring rail lines into the northern end of the old Navy base.

For weeks, SPA officials have denied any involvement in the rail line idea, saying the stewing feud between North Charleston, various branches of state government and members of the General Assembly is not their fight.

But North Charleston officials said an electronic exchange between an SPA lobbyist and a member of U.S. Rep. Henry Brown's staff is proof that ports authority involvement is more than it has let on.

The correspondence, dated April 8, begins under a heading of discussing port security grants. It then drifts into the rail debate by mentioning possible sites where shipping containers could be transferred from trucks to trains.

In one message, government relations manager Barbara Melvin suggests that other state government agencies get involved on the money end, avoiding friction between the SPA and North Charleston. That would include rekindling the fight over an agreement between North Charleston and the SPA stipulating that rail lines serving a new terminal would not run through the base's northern end.

That agreement is key: The SPA received permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to construct the terminal with that agreement in mind.

"We were thinking Public Railways, (state Department of Commerce), should apply for the funds so as to not cause the Port any permit headaches and raise questions about (agreement) violations for the Port with the City of North Charleston because the (railroad provider Norfolk Southern) rail access to its yard on the base would be through the northern end per the State Rail Plan study," Melvin wrote to Ryan Bowley, legislative director for Rep. Brown in Washington.

SPA spokesman Byron Miller said the note is consistent with the SPA's position that it is not involved in planning, developing, financing or constructing any new intermodal yard adjacent to the new terminal, or in advocating rail from the north. Additionally, he noted the agency has consistently said and written that it is committed to earlier agreements.

But North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey said the e-mail is proof the port is complicit with the state Commerce Department in efforts to route railroads through the northern end of the base.

"The bottom line is, they understand what is going on," Summey said Wednesday.

Summey said the SPA is creating the appearance that the Commerce Department is making requests that, in reality, come from the port.

It's "let it go through Department of Commerce" so it doesn't look like they are in violation of the Army Corps of Engineers, Summey said.

The e-mail was released to The Post and Courier this week by North Charleston officials who would not disclose how it was obtained. It was made public after city officials filed a Freedom of Information request with the SPA covering nearly all of Melvin's communications over four days in April. The note was not included in a packet that SPA gave North Charleston this week.

SPA spokesman Miller said the note was not initially found because it was written under the security grant heading. North Charleston's FOIA request remains open as they hunt for additional documents, he said.

Meanwhile, Summey is headed to the Statehouse this morning to meet with state senators to discuss the rail, base and port issue.