Lawsuit challenges Savannah port project

From STAFF REPORTS Environmental groups have filed suit to stop the deepening of the Savannah River, an action seen as vital by proponents of expanding the Savannah port. The ports in Savannah and Brunswick are used by numerous industries and businesses in Coweta County. Millions of dollars in components and products come through the ports and then to Coweta, and millions of completed products are shipped from Coweta to the ports for shipping around the world.
On Dec. 8, Georgia and South Carolina conservation groups challenged a South Carolina agency's approval of a $650 million project to deepen the Savannah River and warned Gov. Nikki 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 South Carolina Administrative Law Court, contending that the South Carolina Board of Health and Environmental Control improperly permitted the 38-mile deepening project. The plaintiffs maintain the project 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, according to Kathleen Sullivan of the SELC. Professional staff with the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control cited the same impacts in denying approval for the project in September. But, after Haley asked her newly appointed DHEC board to reconsider the staff denial, the agency settled with Georgia and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers -- approving the deepening permit on Nov. 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 SELC attorney. "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 Corps of Engineers and the Georgia Ports Authority seek to spend $650 million on the project. Most of the $650 million project would be paid for by U.S. taxpayers, Sullivan said. 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. The initial denial by DHEC staff cited the Corps' failure to consider less harmful alternatives. "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 to Haley's office -- asking personnel there not to destroy email records concerning the approval. 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. DHEC board members and Haley have defended the port deepening decision -- saying the Corps of Engineers could have ignored South Carolina's permitting approval altogether. Attorneys with the law center disputed that assertion. "This destructive expansion project in a South Carolina river cannot move forward without South Carolina's approval," said SELC attorney Chris DeScherer. "Anyone who says otherwise is grasping at straws." "The expansion of this port is a job creator," U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said during a Nov. 15 visit to Savannah. "It fits the president's agenda of putting people back to work." LaHood toured the Savannah facilities with Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. "It has to happen," he said of the plan to deepen the harbor. "The Port of Savannah is an economic engine that benefits workers and businesses across the region," LaHood said. "When we invest in our ports and waterways, it allows us to move goods more quickly and efficiently, spur economic growth and help make America even more competitive in the global market." In Fiscal Year 2010, Coweta County industries and businesses received 2,552 tons of auto parts, 1,542 tons of automobiles, and 1,467 tons of boats and boat parts from the Savannah-Brunswick ports. The value of those items was around $9.25 million. The ports also brought $9.49 million in twine and cord, $11.2 million in electronic music equipment, $15.1 million in other electronic products and $46.44 million in candles to Coweta County during FY 2010. Top Coweta importers through the ports included Yamaha, William L Bonnell, Maxxis Wheel, EGO and Wicket National. The largest Coweta exporter through Savannah-Brunswick is Yamaha Manufacturing. In FY 2010, Yamaha shipped 4,191 tons valued at $54,839,947. Triumph Motorcycles sent 19 tons valued at $141,222. EGO North America, Kason and Bonnell also used the coastal ports to ship products last year. Savannah handled 6.84 million tons of containerized export cargo during the most recent fiscal year. Also in FY2011, Savannah handled 8.7 percent of U.S. containerized cargo volume and 12.5 percent of all U.S. containerized exports. Figures released by the U.S. Department of Commerce show the Georgia ports comprise the second busiest container port for the export of American goods. The Savannah-Brunswick ports export more millions of tons than any port except Los Angeles. Behind them are Long Beach, third; Houston, fourth; New York, fifth.

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