The South Carolina House and Senate have both voted to suspend the state Department of Health and Environmental Control’s (DHEC) authority to approve Georgia’s dredging of the Savannah River to deepen the Port of Savannah. In the SC Senate, every member co-sponsored the bill and the House passed it unanimously.
For those of you keeping score at home, in November, the DHEC and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reached a compromise and DHEC reversed its staff’s earlier denial of a dredging permit.
Later that month, the South Carolina SRMC (Savannah River Maritime Commission), which was created by the SC legislature to deal with port issues, challenged DHEC’s approval of dredging, claiming that DHEC doesn’t have sole authority to grant the water quality waiver that it issued to permit dredging.
Now the internal fight has drawn in the South Carolina legislature and Gov. Nikki Haley.
Protesting a November decision by the state’s environmental board, lawmakers voted 111-0 for a resolution, H. 4672, to toss out the permit that was granted to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on the grounds that DHEC “usurped” the authority of a separate commission.
The legislation also retroactively cancels any decisions made by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control related to the Savannah River since 2007. That is the year the General Assembly created the S.C. Savannah River Maritime Commission, a panel representing South Carolina on all dredging, wastewater and navigability questions.
Members of the DHEC board were appointed by Republican Gov. Nikki Haley. Since November, the first-term Republican governor has rebuffed accusations from lawmakers who said she improperly pressured her appointees to approve the permit in an effort to curry favor with Georgia political leaders.
Deepening of the Savannah River to permit better access to the Port of Savannah has been called the battle line in the “war between Charleston and Savannah.”
But South Carolina may be shooting itself in the foot.
South Carolina and Georgia also are partners in a plan to develop the $5 billion Jasper Ocean Terminal, a new port on the Savannah River about six miles closer to the ocean than Georgia’s Garden City Terminal. But State Ports Authority officials say Jasper is unlikely to happen if the dredging for the Garden City goes forward.
SPA President Jim Newsome has said the Jasper project won’t make sense unless the Savannah River can be deepened to at least 50 feet, and wide enough for two-way shipping, as far as the Jasper site. He and others say that if a 48-foot deepening is approved now, further deepening for Jasper would be unlikely to happen.