Note to DHEC: Not so deep

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The one state body specifically created to represent South Carolina’s interests regarding the Savannah River has it right: The Georgia Ports Authority’s dredging plan would be too damaging to the environment. And, we’d add, too expensive.

In its support of the Georgia plan, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control clearly missed the mark. DHEC and its governing board endorsed the plan to deepen the river channel to 47 feet. They have been under siege in the courts and the Legislature since.

DHEC accepted Georgia’s contention that it could mitigate environmental damage by using 12 large cones to inject oxygen into the oxygen-starved river.

Thankfully, the Savannah River Maritime Commission’s lenses weren’t so rose-tinted.

Commission members recognized that the science is untested, and that meaningful mitigation has to be more than wishful thinking. Conservation groups in both states have objected to DHEC’s heedless decision on the dredging project, and have filed legal challenges to revoke it. So has the Maritime Commission.

In addition, the Maritime Commission demanded a detailed report on potential impacts of building a port facility in Jasper County on top of dredged sludge Georgia plans to dump there.

The Savannah River, before the first inch of mud is dredged, is in bad shape. Its fish population has been in jeopardy for years because the water lacks adequate oxygen to sustain it.

The deepening project would harm more than 1,200 acres of marsh by altering the salinity of the river, and would make it harder for fish to thrive.

The river is too shallow to accommodate the very large container ships that the industry expects to use increasingly after the Panama Canal widening is complete.

Clearly, the Georgia plan is driven by economics, without enough concern for the health of the river, which is a key resource for both Georgia and South Carolina.

S.C. Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Bonneau, a member of the SRMC, said, “The Savannah River is a shared resource, and to needlessly destroy the environment is really unacceptable.”

SRMC was reasonable in its deliberations and decisions. It didn’t nix dredging altogether, but recommended that the river be deepened to no more than 45 feet. After the 45-foot mark, the damage would increase dramatically.

And S.C. State Port Authority officials have said that 47 feet isn’t deep enough for the largest post-Panamax ships anyway. They require 50 feet.

The SPA wants to proceed with the far cheaper alternation to deepen the channel in Charleston Harbor to 50 feet for that purpose.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also has approved the Georgia plan and could appeal SRMC’s decision. But the commission makes a good case for its decision, and the Corps should defer to it. The Georgia deepening project would cost $600 million. In contrast, the Charleston project would cost $300 million. In each instance, those are public dollars.

The S.C. Legislature, recognizing the importance of the river South Carolina and Georgia share, created the Savannah River Maritime Commission and charged it with making sure nothing is done that would diminish its value to South Carolina.

By its decision, the commission has fulfilled that responsibility. And it did so in a thoughtful, science-based manner, aimed at protecting this state’s natural resources.

For future reference, DHEC should take note.