The State Ports Authority announced Monday that it will donate $5 million towards land conservation efforts as it prepares to dredge Charleston Harbor down to 52 feet.
The Ports Authority board unanimously approved the resolution with the Coastal Conservation League shortly before agency officials teamed with conservation groups and Gov. Nikki Haley to make the announcement at a private plantation along the Cooper River in the town of Huger — more than 20 miles northeast of Charleston.
The Ports Authority is hoping the funds will help offset some environmental damage caused by deepening the harbor as it prepares to handle new, larger container ships. The donation, which must be approved by the Joint Bond Review Committee later this month, will come from funds set aside by the General Assembly to deepen the harbor
Lowcountry Open Land Trust Executive Director Elizabeth Hagood said her organization would handle the funds. She said they would work to leverage the money with grants from the South Carolina Conservation Bank and other groups to protect the Cooper River watershed through land purchases and conservation easements.
“It really is a monumental event when you can have two interests, the economic and the environmental that are traditionally adversarial on matters like this, put down their own interests and put the common interests of the state first,” she told South Carolina Radio Network.
The Army Corps of Engineers is recommending a 52-foot depth for the channel — an increase from its current 47 feet. The work would cost a total of $509 million, according to the study. The Corps is currently reviewing public comments about its recommendations before releasing its final report and recommendations next fall. At that point, it will be up to Congress and the national Corps of Engineers’ office to approve the project itself. The entire project is tentatively scheduled for completion in 2020.
While all involved say Monday’s agreement is not necessary for the Corps to approve the project, the signed document allows the Ports Authority to claim any land purchased through the donation to count as mitigation towards the dredging. The Coastal Conservation League, Southern Environmental Law Center, and other environmental groups will also agree not to challenge the dredging in court.
“We took an important step forward in the realization of our harbor deepening project,” Ports Authority President & CEO Jim Newsome said. “It was a pretty intricate deal that was worked on over the last two to six months. And I think it’s a great accomplishment for all parties.”
Coastal Conservation League executive director Dana Beach also hailed the agreement, saying any future protection of the harbor must involve protecting the Cooper River watershed from suburban growth. “Our goal has been to support the positive aspects of the project while preventing the degradation of two of South Carolina’s greatest assets – Charleston Harbor and the Cooper River,” he said in a release.
For her part, Gov. Haley said the announcement is proof that environmental groups can work with business interests to reach a mutually beneficial agreement. “Today is the day we say ‘yes’ to conservation and business,” she told those gathered at the Silk Hope Plantation on Monday.