I think today’s decision by the DHEC board to issue a water quality permit in connection with the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project (SHEP) was the wrong one for two primary reasons.
First, the DHEC board’s decision undermines the excellent work that has been done the past few years by the Savannah River Maritime Commission, a commission that by law has the plenary power of the State of South Carolina as to all matters involving the use of the Savannah River for maritime commerce. The maritime commission was created so that the State of South Carolina could speak with one unified voice in such matters, yet the concerns it expressed to the DHEC board about SHEP, in general, and the water quality permit, in particular, were ignored. The DHEC board and staff should not have been negotiating a deal with the Georgia Ports Authority and the Corps of Engineers when that power clearly lies with the maritime commission. At the very least, members of the maritime commission should have been at the table; they have been involved in this matter on the state’s behalf for years, as opposed to weeks.
Second, as a result of the DHEC board decision, the State of South Carolina has lost a great deal of the leverage it had to insist that the United States Army Corps of Engineers: a) consider the Jasper County port site as a less costly alternative, in both monetary and environmental terms, to dredging 30 miles of the Savannah River; b) modify the SHEP dredging plans so that the Jasper County port site receives the improvements it needs to handle maritime commerce; and c) release the spoil easement that presently encumbers the Jasper port site – the roadblock to its immediate development by the private sector with private capital. The last point merits special emphasis since Congress has directed the Corps to release the spoil easement, and that directive has been ignored by the Corps.
Given the tremendous leverage the State of South Carolina had over the State of Georgia in this matter, it was entirely possible, even likely, that a comprehensive agreement could have been reached between the two states not only in regard to SHEP and the development of the Jasper port site, but also in regard to other areas of interest concerning the Savannah River. For example, the Savannah River provides potable water for Beaufort County and the surrounding counties, as well as for other SC counties further up-river. The City of Atlanta has made known its interest in tapping the Savannah River in the future to meet its potable water needs, and a water battle between the two states is looming. That could have been on the table and resolved, as could the Total Maximum Daily Load issues.