South Carolina Approval of $650M Savannah River Deepening Challenged
Georgia and South Carolina conservation groups today challenged a South Carolina agency’s approval of a $650 million project to deepen the Savannah River and warned Governor Haley not to destroy evidence concerning her office’s involvement in the matter.
Attorneys with the Southern Environmental Law Center filed the appeal in the S.C. Administrative Law Court, contending that the S.C. Board of Health and Environmental Control improperly permitted the 38-mile deepening project, which will deplete the Savannah River’s dissolved oxygen levels so much that untested machines would be needed for life support. The project would also destroy habitat of the endangered shortnose sturgeon, and ruin hundreds of acres of rare and productive freshwater marsh.
DHEC professional staff cited the same impacts in denying approval for the project in September. But, after Governor Haley asked her newly appointed DHEC Board to reconsider the staff denial, the agency settled with Georgia and the Corps and approved the deepening permit on November 15.
“Before the Governor’s office got involved, the agency properly concluded the project fails to meet the legal benchmarks that protect South Carolina’s valuable environment from unnecessary destruction,” said Blan Holman, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “After the intervention, the benchmarks got moved.”
The appeal was filed on behalf of the Savannah Riverkeeper, based in Augusta, as well as the Coastal Conservation League and the South Carolina Wildlife Federation. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Georgia Ports Authority seek to spend $650 million in taxpayer money and irreparably harm the river despite the Corps’ finding that deepening the river for large “post-panamax” ships would not increase Savannah’s port business and that cargo volume would remain the same even without deepening.
Most of the $650 million project would be paid for by U.S. taxpayers. But the Corps of Engineers, the agency pushing the deepening, has refused to consider whether servicing the large ships in other ports where other deepenings are envisioned would save taxpayers money and reduce environmental destruction. Alberto Aleman, the Panama Canal’s chief executive officer said this year that only two harbors on the East Coast and one in the Gulf would need to be deepened to service larger ships using the widened Panama Canal, not the 13 port expansions now underway. Deepening Charleston is estimated to cost half as much as deepening the Savannah River and cause much less damage, but the Corps has refused to compare port deepening projects.
The initial denial by DHEC staff cited the Corps’ failure to consider less harmful alternatives. Yet the board decision to issue the approvals made no mention of alternatives at all.
“We need to consider the region’s best investment to save tax money, preserve the environment and maximize jobs,” said Dana Beach, executive director of the Coastal Conservation League. “The worst outcome for taxpayers and our resources is to blindly approve the most expensive and destructive project first.”
In addition to filing the appeal, lawyers for the group sent letters to DHEC and the Office of the Governor asking personnel there not to destroy email records concerning the approval — information that could be evidence relevant to the case. Last month, it was reported that the governor’s office had instructed employees to destroy emails.
“This is standard practice at the outset of litigation because intentionally destroying relevant records to avoid discovery is improper,” said Holman.
Members of the DHEC Board testified to a Senate Committee last week that Governor Haley contacted them and requested that the board review the staff’s denial of approvals for the Savannah deepening. After the board agreed to review that decision, a back-room deal was reached between the Corps, the Georgia Ports Authority and DHEC officials on the morning of the November 10 board hearing. The agreement purported to provide mitigation and assurances for the damage done, including an agreement by Georgia to provide funds if federal taxpayer dollars are not available to operate an experimental million-dollar-a-year-aeration system for addressing depleted oxygen levels.
At a November 15 meeting, the board denied conservation groups the right to address inadequacies of the agreement and then approved the settlement with little discussion. On November 15, the board issued the agency’s written decision approving the deepening project. Board members and Governor Haley subsequently defended the decision by saying that the Corps of Engineers could have ignored South Carolina’s permitting approval altogether. Attorneys with the law center disputed that.
“This destructive expansion project in a South Carolina river cannot move forward without South Carolina’s approval,” said Chris DeScherer, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “Anyone who says otherwise is grasping at straws.”