The Savannah River deepening project is probably going to end up in court.
A South Carolina commission says the state’s environmental agency improperly granted a water quality permit that would allow Georgia to deepen the river. Georgia wants to start the dredging so it can begin hosting new, larger ships to its port in the city of Savannah. South Carolina is also trying to land funds to eventually conduct a similar project in the Charleston harbor.
The Savannah River Maritime Commission was formed in 2007 to deal with port issues. Commission members said only they, not the Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC), are allowed to negotiate with Georgia and the Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) on dredging the river. Because of the environmental impact, Georgia sought DHEC’s clearance before starting the project.
DHEC’s staff originally opposed the dredging in September, saying then that it would cause too much environmental damage under the plan put forward by ACE. However, DHEC’s board last week approved a compromise with Georgia port officials in a surprise unanimous vote.
Maritime Commission members were not happy when they learned about the new deal. “We were not party to any type of compromise,” State Sen. Larry Grooms, a Berkeley County legislator and member of the commission told reporters, “State law is very specific that this commission is authorized to negotiate with Georgia on any issues related to the Savannah River, not DHEC.”
Grooms said that should void the permit. The Maritime Commission voted unanimously Monday to seek legal action against DHEC’s ruling. DHEC board chairman Allen Amsler sits on the Maritime Commission, but did not attend Monday’s meeting.
Georgia accused South Carolina of trying to stop the project to protect the Port of Charleston, which is also seeking federal money to dredge its harbor.
Several legislators, notably Democratic Sen. Vincent Sheheen (D-Kershaw), said the Governor’s Office interfered in the decision. Sheheen demanded that Gov. Nikki Haley reveal who has donated to her campaign from Georgia. He also called for the entire DHEC board (all Haley appointees) to resign.
Grooms would not go that far, but he said he was outraged by the board’s decision, “For DHEC to ensure that businesses in Georgia and their economy are looked out for when ours is not is unconscionable,” Grooms said, “I’m greatly offended at the actions of DHEC. And the more I learn about what they did and their implications, the more outraged I am.”
Maritime Commission chairman Dean Moss said Amsler informed him there would be no public comment period before last Thursday’s meeting. South Carolina’s Department of Natural Resources had wanted to testify about the dredging’s likely impact on wildlife, especially the endangered short-nosed sturgeon.
DNR Director of Environmental Programs Bob Perry said DHEC had reached the compromise with Georgia only hours before Thursday’s vote and did not show it to anyone outside the agency before the vote.