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Deepening challenged
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The Southern Environmental Law Center has filed a challenge to the South Carolina permit that clears the way for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to dredge 38 miles of the Savannah River shipping channel to a depth of 48 feet, calling into the question the apparent “horse–trading” that allowed the approval to happen.

The center represents the Savannah Waterkeeper, S.C. Coastal Conservation League and the South Carolina Wildlife Federation.  It filed its challenge – formally known as a request for a contested case hearing before an administrative law judge – on the same day a South Carolina state senate panel cleared staffers of Gov. Nikki Haley of using undue influence to force the agency to reverse course and approve a permit it had denied two months earlier.

The Savannah River Maritime Commission will also make its own challenge to the permit on the basis that the deepening project will so alter the channel that it will make future development of a port facility in Jasper County, S.C. impossible.

“Basically, where in a situation where we opposed to issuance of the permit because we had concerns about the environmental impacts of this project, and we still have those concerns,” said Blan Holman, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

“However, there’s also a new wrinkle: before the Governor’s office got involved, the agency properly concluded the project fails to meet legal benchmarks that protect South Carolina’s environment from unnecessary destruction,” said “After the intervention, benchmarks got moved.”

The Environmental Law Center pointedly warned Haley “not to destroy evidence concerning her office’s involvement in the matter”.

Hours before Holman made these comments a panel of state senators voted 7–3 to clear Haley’s staff of charges they exerted undue influence over the DHEC board.

Ted Pitts, Haley’s deputy chief of staff, said Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal asked Haley during an informal meeting in October to see that DHEC’s board would hear Georgia’s case for the permit after DHEC staff denied it.

Haley then asked DHEC board Chairman Allen Amsler, her political appointee, to give Georgia a hearing, he said.

DHEC approved the permit Nov. 10, and with that, in South Carolina at least, political chaos ensued.

Helping to muddy the situation further is the fact that many counties in South Carolina are just as close or closer to Savannah, which would benefit from the dredging project, as they are from Charleston.

A case is point is Orangeburg County, where Gregg Robinson is executive director of the Orangeburg County Development Commission.

Robinson said he’s become concerned by the rhetoric both because of some of the blatant misstatements that he’s read and also because Orangeburg, which has attracted substantial international investment in recent years, utilizes both ports.

“We’re about equal distance from both ports, businesses in out community utilize both,” he explained. “Many of our companies that do business with Asia ship through the Port of Savannah, while those that do more business with Europe ship primarily through the Port of Charleston.”

“In the end, this really seems like an argument over competition, and given were we are located, competition between the two ports is good for us,” Robinson continued.

The Corps and the Georgia Ports Authority plan to spend $650 million on the channel deepening that will enable the Port of Savannah to serve large “post–panamax” ships expected to call on east coast ports after the Panama Canal is widened in 2014.

But environmentalists believe the Corps hasn’t looked hard or broad enough at what’s necessary to accommodate an uncertain increase in container cargo traffic to the east coast and where the money is best spent.

They cite a statement made by Panama Canal CEO Alberto Aleman earlier this year that suggested only two harbors on the East Coast and one in the Gulf would need to be deepened to service the larger ships, not the 13 expansions now underway.