2 leaders slam port dredging 'blunder'

Gov. Nikki Haley addresses the media Thursday at an event at Charles Towne Landing in Charleston for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

COLUMBIA -- Two leading Republican lawmakers Thursday blasted a state agency's unpopular decision to allow the Georgia Ports Authority to dredge the Savannah River to its Garden City Terminal.

"It's just the worst economic, environmental decision that I've seen in the 32 years that I've been here in Columbia," state Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell said.

McConnell, R-Charleston, said the "big step backwards" would kill plans for a port in the Palmetto State in nearby Jasper County. "They get the jobs on the Georgia side, and we get the cadmium-layered sludge on the South Carolina side."

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control has decided to permit Georgia to deepen the river from 42 to 48 feet up to its Garden City Terminal.

State Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Charleston, said the approval was a "blunder," adding, "It gave the advantage to Georgia."

Merrill said he would prefer to see Gov. Nikki Haley say the feedback from the state's business and maritime communities shows a need for DHEC's board to reconsider its decision.

Both lawmakers spoke to reporters Thursday during an annual legislative workshop in Columbia.

During a visit to Charleston later in the day, Haley said that her aim was to take "the politics and the slowness" out of DHEC's permitting process, adding that she stands by its action.

"We can't just get mad every time we don't like a decision," she said, adding she wants to see strong ports in Jasper, Charleston and Georgetown.

Both McConnell and Merrill said the Savannah River Maritime Commission should have been consulted -- and they hope the commission will block it. The commission, on which McConnell serves, already has voted to challenge DHEC's November decision.

The General Assembly previously has passed resolutions opposing the dredging, but it could go further in its upcoming session.

"I think there are outside-the-box ways for us to revisit this and address the situation," Merrill added.

While he said it's not desirable to have one large body like the Legislature micromanaging, "there are some issues that might rise to that level, and this might be one. I think there's enough sentiment that this was a poor decision -- and one with long-lasting ramifications."

Georgia and South Carolina port officials disagree whether the dredging would harm prospects for the proposed Jasper port. The Southern Environmental Law Center also is challenging the permit.