SC alphabet soup fight may impact Savannah River deepening

Last week, the SCDHEC (South Carolina Department of Health and Environmentl Control) reversed its earlier decision and approved a permit to allow the Corps of Engineers to dredge the Savannah River  and open the river channel to the Port of Savannah to allow the larger “New Panamax” ships to reach the port.

Today, the SRMC (Savannah River Maritime Commission), which was created by the SC legislature to deal with port issues, is challenging the approval. The Maritime Commission claims that the DHEC doesn’t have sole authority to grant the water quality waiver that it issued last week.

DHEC board members and staff “overstepped their boundaries in issuing the permit,” said state Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, a member of the Maritime Commission. “We took action to undo the DHEC damages.”

The Maritime Commission vote declared the permit was issued improperly and has no effect as law. The commission also voted to ask S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson to weigh in on which agency has the authority to negotiate with Georgia.

Neither the Maritime Commission nor the S.C. Department of Natural Resources were part of DHEC’s negotiations Thursday with the Corps and Georgia. The Maritime Commission was created specifically to represent South Carolina in “matters pertaining to the navigability, depth, dredging, wastewater and sludge disposal and related collateral issues in regard to the use of the Savannah River as a waterway for ocean-going container or commerce vessels.”

Questions of political influence are sure to surface. Gov. Nikki Haley appointed all the members of the DHEC, but only 4 of 12 members of the Maritime Commission.

But this isn’t a case of leftist envirowackos trying to protect the environment at the expense of jobs; it’s South Carolina Republicans fighting other South Carolina Republicans over protecting South Carolina economic development against Georgia’s development of the Port of Savannah.

Grooms and others think DHEC’s actions could doom the chances of a proposed port on the Savannah River in Jasper County and hurt business at the Port of Charleston.

“When our state agency favors Georgia over South Carolina, that’s troubling,” Grooms said. “I’d rather South Carolina be the big winner than Georgia.”



  1. Cassandra says:

    On the night of December 26, 1860, US Army Maj. Robt. Anderson wrote to Adj. Gen. of the Secretary of War Samuel Cooper about his surrender of Fort Moultrie, which preceded Fort Sumter. He said:

    “The step I have taken was, in my opinion, necessary to prevent the effusion of blood.”

    Hopefully, history shan’t repeat itself.

  2. Calypso says:

    A question to those of you more knowledgeable than I:

    Does it make any sense for Savannah to remain the size it is and allow the Panamax ships to go elsewhere? The reasoning being that the vast majority of ships will not be Panamax and perhaps the ports designed for Panamax won’t want to be bothered with the current smaller ships and Savannah could grow its current size ship volume as those ships may no longer be welcome at Panamax ports?

  3. Todd Rehm says:


    No, it doesn’t make sense. Here’s why.

    First, a third of the world’s container fleet already exceeds Panamax size. The New Panamax standard will accelerate this as the larger P2 ships can reduce the cost of shipping by as much as 50% per container versus Panamax sized ships. So larger ships will be the rule from here on out, and it’s almost inevitable that if Savannah is to remain an active port, it will have to accomodate larger vessels. As current Panamax ships are retired, they’re likely to be replaced by larger ships and we will eventually be able to serve a much smaller portion of the fleet.

    Second, the nearest deep water ports on the east coast are Baltimore and Norfolk. Does it really make sense to ship stuff past Savannah to Norfolk, then ship it back South? Or vice-versa for export? Miami will be dredging to accomodate P2 ships as well.

    Third, there is a window of opportunity for Savannah to capture more of the Asia-East Coast trade that will be carried on P2 ships. We can get to work now while that window is open, or we can try to catch up later when environmental regulations are likely to be more stringent.

    • Calypso says:

      Thanks, Todd. I may not have been using my terms correctly. I thought Panamax meant the new, bigger ships that the Panama Canal was being made to accommodate. You’re saying that Panamax ships are already in use are going to be bested in size by even newer P2 ships and it’s the P2 ships that Savannah needs to get ready for?

      Savannah can already handle Panamax ships, correct? Or am I all tangled up here?

      • Todd Rehm says:

        It’s confusing terminology, Calypso.

        Panamax is the size that fits the canal currently and is up to 950 feet in length. Post-Panamax is larger than that and is not a standard, it just means larger that Panamax. “New Panamax” is the largest dimensions that will fit the new locks on the canal, with a 1200 foot length. It’s worth noting that the other dimensions are larger, but simply using length illustrates the issue.

        If I’d been on the naming committee, I would have called “New Panamax” something like “Panamax2” to avoid confusion. And personally, I am calling the NP ships Panamax2.

        The increased length doesn’t do justice to the capacity increase. Panamax ships can carry about 5000 twenty-foot containers while P2 ships can carry in the range of 13-14,o00.

        Port of Savannah can currently handle Panamax ships and some post-Panamax ships.

        Panamax2 is not just important for importing goods through the Port, but equally important for export.

        Here’s a little snippet from the Georgia Ports Authority on the economic significance of the port:

        Georgia’s deepwater ports and inland barge terminals support more than 295,000 jobs throughout the state annually and contribute $15.5 billion in income, $61.7 billion in revenue and $2.6 billion in state and local taxes to Georgia’s economy. The Port of Savannah was the second busiest U.S. container port for the export of American goods by tonnage in FY2011. It also handled 8.7 percent of the U.S. containerized cargo volume and 12.5 percent of all U.S. containerized exports in FY2011.


        • Calypso says:

          Thanks again, Todd. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for bolstering the port of Savannah and it looks like deepening it is the answer. I merely posed a question thinking perhaps Savannah could become the major alternative to the biggst ships if it wasn’t deepened.

          One point in you response above, “Panamax ships can carry about 5000 twenty-foot containers while P2 ships can carry in the range of 1300-1400.” Did you forget a zero somewhere?

  4. billdawers says:

    Just a point of clarification here on a widely misunderstood point.

    The Corps of Engineers’ economic analysis does not predict that deepening the harbor will increase the amount of cargo going in and out of Savannah. The landside capacity of the port will continue to increase and will max out in 2032 with or without deepening, according to the COE. The financial benefits will come from various improvements in efficiency — ships being fully loaded rather than light loaded, ships being less dependent on tides, etc. The estimates of increased jobs have nothing to do with additional port workers or truckers; the COE merely assumes that all of the money saved will be available for productive use elsewhere in the economy.

    I have written about this in my Savannah Morning News column and on my blog, including here:

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