SAVANNAH — Georgia and South Carolina port officials agreed Tuesday to slow their work toward building a shared shipping terminal on the Savannah River after a long and unresolved debate over whether the new seaport would benefit or suffer from plans to deepen the harbor to the nearby Port of Savannah.
The two-state board steering the proposed port in Jasper County, S.C., voted to commit only the minimum funding needed to keep its office open and consultants on the payroll. But feuding over the Savannah Harbor prevented the board from deciding on $631,000 in studies needed to move the Jasper County project forward.
“Let’s take a step back and wait,” said Bill Stern, ports chairman for South Carolina and a member of the two-state board. “I don’t think it serves any purpose to keep spending money right now.”
Georgia and South Carolina have spent four years and $3.6 million working together on developing a 1,500-acre port in Jasper County, on a site just a few miles downriver from Savannah’s booming port on the river that divides the states. Still in the planning stages, the new port would open at the soonest in 2025.
Jasper County, one of South Carolina’s poorest counties, could desperately use the jobs and development. But now the project appears to be caught up in politics over the states’ rival ports in Savannah and Charleston, which are both scrambling to deepen their harbors to accept supersize cargo ships.
Andy Fulghum, county administrator for Jasper County, said Tuesday he was glad the project at least received about $500,000 needed to keep the states from having to start over again.
“It’s moving forward at a slower pace than Jasper County would like, but it’s moving forward,” Fulghum said. “There are trust issues and individual groups trying to protect their own interests while also working on a joint project. So it’s difficult for everybody.”
Cooperation between the states has broken down over Georgia’s plans to deepen the river from 42 to 48 feet along a 35-miles stretch from the ocean to the Savannah port, the fourth busiest container port in the nation. The Army Corps of Engineers released draft studies on the plan in November and hopes to get final approval within a year.
South Carolina port officials are objecting to the Corps’ plans to dump clay dug from the river bottom onto the Jasper County port site. They say they also fear the Savannah River, even after dredging, wouldn’t be deep enough or wide enough to handle the shipping traffic for both ports.
Georgia’s port chiefs insist just the opposite – that their plan to deepen the river only helps the Jasper County port. Engineering consultants for the two-state board said Tuesday that clay dredged from the river would be used to raise the Jasper County site’s elevation by 6 feet, which is needed to prevent flooding. They said using the dredged clay would save the project $300 million, the cost of having dirt brought in by truck or barge.
Curtis Foltz, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority, said he’s certain the deepened river could handle ships for both ports. He said giant cargo ships are already able to reach the Savannah port with just 42 feet of depth, but they have to wait until high tide. That won’t be the case with 6 more feet of depth, he said.
“In the studies that have been done of the river and its navigable features, a 48-foot depth will support the growth we have forecast,” Foltz said.
In the end, neither side could agree.
Georgia ports chairman Alec Poitevint said deepening the Savannah harbor would be “an incredible benefit to the Jasper port.”
From across the table, South Carolina’s Stern shot back that the Savannah project “could kill the Jasper port.”
Meanwhile, South Carolina’s environmental agency is asking the Army Corps to consider an alternative – deepening the river from the ocean to the proposed Jasper port, instead of the additional 7miles to Savannah’s port, to a depth of 50 feet instead of the proposed 48 feet.
The joint-port board members from South Carolina insisted on delaying any decisions to fund more studies on the Jasper County site in hopes that the Army Corps will study it for them.
Alan Garrett, chief of civil works projects for the Army Corps in Savannah, said he should know by April 1 if the agency will consider the idea. But he said the odds aren’t good.
“The terminal doesn’t exist” in Jasper County, Garrett said. “So I don’t know how it can affect the Savannah expansion project.”