South Carolina’s highest court is questioning whether the state’s environmental agency violated the law when it bypassed a legislative commission to approve dredging on the Savannah River.
The South Carolina Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday morning filed by environmental groups that say the state Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) improperly sidestepped the Savannah River Maritime Commission when it approved a water quality certification for the project. The commission was created by statute in 2007 by the General Assembly to oversee the state’s interest as it pertains to the Savannah River.
Frank Holleman, Senior Attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, told the court that DHEC overstepped its authority by granting a water quality permit to the Georgia Ports Authority and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to dredge the Savannah River to accommodate larger ships at the Savannah Port.
Holleman says the law states clearly that the Savannah River Maritime Commission should have been involved in the decision. Holleman said DHEC had no authority to negotiate a deal with the state of Georgia and the Army Corps of engineers and they broke the law in doing so.
AUDIO: Holleman says the law is clear that the SRMC has negotiating power (:41)
Asked by Chief Justice Jean Toal if he agreed that DHEC disobeyed the law by granting a water quality permit without the input of the Commission, DHEC attorney John Harleston respectfully disagreed. Harleston argued that the agency has the ultimate authority in the granting of permits.
AUDIO: Harleston says DHEC has power to grant permits (:35)
Tuesday’s court proceedings are part of an ongoing legal dispute initiated by DHEC’s approval of permits last November for the $650 million Savannah dredging project. Environmentalists argue that the dredging would do harm to the wetlands on that part of the river. Lawmakers oppose the dredging for a different reason, believing it would give the Georgia an economic advantage over South Carolina– which is still working to finalize the dredging of the Charleston port.