The long-delayed Savannah River port expansion is back on track as Georgia officials have agreed to pay South Carolina entities millions of dollars and provide environmental safeguards that could once again scuttle the project.
The S.C. Savannah River Maritime Commission and the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control on Wednesday approved the deal, which grew out of court-ordered mediation on the issue. Representatives of conservation groups who had sued over the issue said they have agreed to the provisions. The document approved Wednesday will be submitted to U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel, who ordered the mediation effort to settle eight lawsuits over the issue.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also will have to sign off on the agreement. Georgia has set aside money for the project, but the full federal funding hasn’t been approved. The Savannah port needs improvements, including a deepened shipping channel, to handle larger ships after the Panama Canal expansion is finished.
The deal gives South Carolina groups the right to scuttle the agreement if devices to pump oxygen into the river don’t offset water quality damage caused by the construction.
DHEC director Catherine Templeton, during a board conference call, noted the environmental permit is basically the same one the agency granted more than a year ago. “Nothing has changed other than mitigation dollars,” Templeton said.
All parties have agreed to a gag order until Gergel approves the deal. The document was made public because it was the subject of a public vote by the maritime commission.
The agreement requires the Georgia Ports Authority to set aside $33.5 million for various efforts to ensure the environmental concerns are met and to provide mitigation for any damages. Also, Georgia will deed to South Carolina about 2,000 acres of salt marsh in South Carolina now owned by the Georgia Department of Transportation. The 2,000 acres, valued at $10 million, is behind land that has been proposed for a separate port on the South Carolina side of the river in Jasper County.
The lawsuits took off after members of the DHEC staff met with Georgia and Corps officials before a November 2011 DHEC board meeting. The board then approved an environmental permit for the harbor expansion. Just a month before, the agency staff had turned down the permit citing environmental concerns.
The maritime commission complained that it had not been consulted before the board vote, and environmental and political groups screamed that the state leaders – and specifically Gov. Nikki Haley – were giving in to pressure from Georgia.
The arguments over permit authority between the maritime commission and DHEC went all the way to the state Supreme Court, which ruled late last year DHEC had violated state law in approving the permit.
Wednesday’s deal is designed to settle the issue, though the dissolved oxygen situation still could be a deal-breaker. Georgia and Corps officials proposed installing devices called Speece cones that will inject oxygen into the river, improving the aquatic living conditions. While outer harbor work can begin immediately under the deal, the inner harbor work will be on hold until the first of the Speece cones is up and running.
And if South Carolina interests aren’t satisfied the injection system is doing what it’s supposed to, the state’s environmental permit for the project can be revoked and lawsuits reinstated. South Carolina interests also must be satisfied once all three injection systems are running during the inner harbor dredging, according to maritime commission attorney Randy Lowell, who explained the deal to commission members.
Among the mitigation payments agreed to by the Georgia Ports Authority:
• $3 million to S.C. DHEC for water quality monitoring in the lower Savannah River basin.
• $3 million to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources for monitoring the endangered shortnose and Atlantic sturgeons in the river.
• $15 million to three organizations to protect wildlife habitat in the area, with the S.C. Conservation Bank, Ducks Unlimited and DNR each getting $5 million.
• $12.5 million to the Savannah River Restoration Board for conservation projects in the basin.
The ports authority also must keep $2 million in escrow or a letter of credit annually for 50 years to ensure operation and maintenance of the oxygen injection system if the Corps doesn’t pay for it.