Several state senators hammered the chairman of the state’s environmental board during a Tuesday hearing, nearly three weeks after the agency made a controversial decision that effectively allows Georgia to dredge the Savannah River.
On November 10, members of the Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) board voted for a last-minute compromise with Georgia and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that had been reached only a day earlier. The compromise grants the Corps a water quality permit to dredge the river, in exchange for promises from Georgia that it would preserve nearly 1,700 acres of marshes and install oxygen injecting machines along parts of the Savannah where dredging would reduce the river’s oxygen levels.
“A belief of many is that Georgia’s playing us,” Sen. Brad Hutto (D-Orangeburg) said during the Senate Medical Affairs committee hearing, “They figure that if they can get DHEC to sign off on this, then when they end up in a court somewhere they can say ‘Well, look, the agency charged with protecting the environment in South Carolina said OK.'”
DHEC staff opposed Georgia’s permit in September, before Georgia Governor Nathan Deal met with South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley. Haley later asked the board to consider an appeal from the Corps. The committee then approved the compromise proposal at their next meeting.
All six members of the board testified under oath Tuesday that Haley’s office did not try to influence their vote. “When we hear something like this, the intent is to try to resolve any issues between the customer and the agency,” DHEC Chairman Allen Amsler said, “This was no different than any other process we would normally go through.”
Amsler said the seeming reversal came because, under the new agreement, Georgia had met all of DHEC’s requirements for a permit. Many senators were not shy in saying they believed DHEC’s decision gave the Port of Savannah a competitive edge over Charleston, which is a few years behind its counterpart in the race for a deeper harbor.
“You keep talking about the ‘customer’ being the state of Georgia,” Sen. Joel Lourie (D-Richland) told Amsler, “The whole goal here is to protect the public interest for the citizens of South Carolina.”
“So you’re wanting us to ignore the regulations?” Amsler shot back.
AUDIO: Lourie and Amsler get testy (1:05)
Committee chairman Harvey Peeler (R-Cherokee) eventually had to tell Lourie and Amsler to “chill.”
Other members of the committee also wondered why board members willingly accepted their staff’s recommendations only hours after the compromise was reached. Amsler said the members of the board were emailed about the agreement and asked for comment less than 24 hours before the vote. The staff gave the specifics during a presentation at the meeting, he added.
When pressed on the specifics of the presentation, Amsler deferred to DHEC’s staff, which angered Lourie again.
“Economically and environmentally, this is probably the most important decision your board and any DHEC board will make for decades,” he told Amsler, “So, I struggle… when you tell me that staff said it was fine so we went along with it.”
Other members also questioned whether the board was too focused the specifics of the permit and was ignoring the larger implications of a Savannah dredging on the Port of Charleston and a proposed Jasper Ocean Terminal on the South Carolina side of the Savannah River.
“I just have a bit of discomfort with what I perceive is an attitude you’re conveying to us of ‘the permit requirements were met. End of discussion,'” Sen. Danny Verdin (R-Laurens) told Amsler.
Amsler said that it was not the board’s responsibility to consider the economic and political aspects of the permit– only the environmental ones.
Peeler had asked Governor Haley to testify before the committee, but she declined. No members of her staff attended the hearing. The committee members agreed to ask Haley’s staffers to testify again, with the possibility of subpoenaing them if they refuse.
Georgia wants 36 miles of the river dredged an additional six feet to benefit the Port of Savannah, which needs deeper waters to service the larger ships expected to begin coming through the newly-expanded Panama Canal in a few years. Charleston also plans to deepen its harbor an additional five feet.
The hearing lasted for more than six hours.