Five conservation groups asked South Carolina’s top court Tuesday to examine whether the state legally authorized dredging the Savannah River for a major port expansion project in Georgia.
The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control had no authority to compromise and approve the more than $600 million port project at Savannah, according to legal papers filed with the S.C. Supreme Court.
Environmentalists want the Supreme Court to decide if DHEC overstepped its authority, as they contend, or if the agency properly issued a permit for the project.
The request for a ruling was filed by the S.C. Coastal Conservation League, the Savannah Riverkeeper, the S.C. Wildlife Federation and the Conservation Voters of South Carolina. The Southern Environmental Law Center, a nonprofit legal service, is handling the case for environmentalists.
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“DHEC had no authority to cut a backroom deal with Georgia and issue a permit for this destructive, wasteful project because the South Carolina Legislature gave authority over this matter to the Savannah River Maritime Commission in 2007,” said Frank Holleman, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. “We’re asking the South Carolina Supreme Court to declare that the DHEC board acted unlawfully by usurping powers vested in the commission.”
DHEC approved the project in November after years of opposition about its environmental impacts to marshes, water quality and wildlife. The agency’s approval followed a request by Gov. Nikki Haley to review the matter at the request of Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal. The agency’s approval caused an uproar among S.C. politicians, who say it will put the port of Charleston at a competitive disadvantage to Savannah.
Haley, who does not oppose the Savannah dredging, said Tuesday she would let the matter make its way through the courts.
“We’re going to let this play out any way they want,’’ Haley said. “I’ve said all I need to say in terms of what it was, and the fact it was done on merit.’’
A key question is whether DHEC alone has authority to issue a navigable waters permit. In November, DHEC granted that permit at the same time it issued a water quality permit certifying the dredging would not hurt the environment. But a 2007 law gives the Savannah River Maritime Commission a say in the matter, which it did not get when DHEC reached a compromise and OK’d the project, environmentalists say.
Savannah’s port expansion has been planned for more than a decade. DHEC’s approval was a major milestone toward deepening the harbor by about 6 feet.