COLUMBIA — As South Carolina lawmakers seek to undo a permit allowing Georgia to expand its Savannah port, state House members on Wednesday unanimously approved legislation that would temporarily suspend the state environmental agency’s authority on dredging decisions.
In a rare show of unanimity, Republicans and Democrats decried the decision as disastrous to the state’s economy and environment, and a black eye to Gov. Nikki Haley, who’s been under fire for asking her board chairman to hear the appeal.
“I think this is that important to our future, on every single level — environmental, competitiveness, cost — this fails. It fails! Let’s tell the courts. Let’s tell the people of South Carolina, tell Georgia, where we stand as a state,” said Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Charleston.
The House voted 111-0 for a joint resolution to suspend the Department of Health and Environmental Control’s ability to make dredging decisions, as of 2007. That’s when legislators created the Savannah River Maritime Commission and gave it authority to represent South Carolina on navigability issues in the river shared with Georgia.
Neither it nor the state’s natural resources agency was consulted before DHEC awarded the permit in November, two months after agency staff denied it, citing unacceptable harm to the environment.
A joint resolution has the same force as law, and must go through the same approval process, but is a temporary measure that dies when the issue’s over.
Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey called the vote “an unfortunate over-step of the Legislature’s authority.” A DHEC spokesman said the agency couldn’t comment due to pending litigation.
DHEC’s board could have let the staff’s decision stand.
The November reversal came after Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal flew to Columbia to meet with Haley, and she — responding to what she called a perfectly reasonable request — asked DHEC’s board to hear Georgia’s appeal. Minutes before the hearing started, staff reached an agreement with Georgia and the Army Corps of Engineers, which the board, composed entirely of members she appointed, approved unanimously with no debate.
The decision sparked outrage and Senate hearings, as legislators said South Carolina handed Georgia the competitive advantage over Charleston’s port and killed efforts to create a port in Jasper County 14 miles closer to the Atlantic than Savannah.
Agency leaders and the six board members testified to senators last month that Haley did not pressure them for approval. But the testimony also made it clear that board members did not understand the science, as senators peppered them with questions they couldn’t answer, particularly about the diesel-powered devices the agreement relies on to pump oxygen into the river.
The agreement also means South Carolina won’t have access to land slated for the Jasper port for decades, and lawmakers contend the river will be so impaired that getting a water quality permit for Jasper would be unlikely.
“Calling it a decision is an insult to decisions. That would suggest analysis and input,” said Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston. “Their answer is these bubbles are going to solve everything. It’s a joke!”
The maritime commission has joined an appeal by the Southern Environmental Law Center, arguing the permit was improperly granted. It contends the dredging will deplete dissolved oxygen in the already impaired river, destroy habitat of endangered fish and destroy hundreds of acres of fragile freshwater marsh.
Attorney General Alan Wilson is representing the commission, as the law that created the group requires.
While the joint resolution approved by the House won’t end the lawsuit, still in its early discovery stages, it should help arguments in court that the commission has permitting authority, said Wilson spokesman Mark Plowden.
When discussion on the measure started in the House last week, Rep. Ralph Norman, R-Rock Hill, was alone in defending DHEC’s decision and Haley’s input, saying legislators shouldn’t be afraid of competition. Norman was absent Wednesday.
Lawmakers say Haley should call it a mistake and join their efforts. But Haley has remained steadfast in supporting DHEC’s decision, saying her pro-business board did as it was supposed to in making a decision quickly without regard to politics.
“I have said it before, and I will say it again: I am not afraid of a 48-foot Georgia port, 36 miles up the Savannah River, confined to one-way traffic. You should not be either. Let’s quit bickering and work together to see Charleston return to its greatness, Jasper have a future, and Georgetown have a purpose,” she said in last week’s State of the State address.
The “bickering” comment didn’t go over well with legislators.
Merrill said it minimizes an issue that has dire consequences to the state’s economy.
“Her continuing to support DHEC is not doing her any favors,” he said. “I think the governor got buffaloed.” He said he also believes Georgia used the board’s naiveté to its advantage.
House Speaker Bobby Harrell said with one in five jobs in the state tied to ports, the issue is too important to ignore.
“Not only has this placed Charleston’s port at a competitive disadvantage and jeopardized the very existence of a future port in Jasper, it may have also put our state’s taxpayers on the hook for paying a significant portion of Georgia’s port dredging,” said Harrell, R-Charleston.