COLUMBIA, S.C. — Savannah River Maritime Commissioners said Monday that South Carolina's environmental agency improperly approved a water quality permit for dredging the Savannah River.
The unanimous vote to declare the Department of Health and Environmental Control's decision invalid likely sends the issue to court. The commission, created in 2007 to represent South Carolina's interests in the river channel shared with Georgia, also asked Attorney General Alan Wilson to handle the case on its behalf.
The move comes four days after the board approved a compromise on a permit application from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to deepen about 35 miles of the Savannah River, allowing supersize ships to reach the Savannah port. Staff rejected the application in September, citing unacceptable harm to endangered sturgeon and fragile marshes. The compromise was worked out with Georgia officials shortly before the board was set to hear the Corps' appeal.
"We now have two state agencies: One says there is a water quality permit. This state agency says it has not been properly issued, so I imagine we are headed to court," said Senate Transportation Chairman Larry Grooms, R-Bonneau, also a commission member.
Grooms said the commission's responsibilities include river dredging and navigability.
"DHEC overstepped their boundaries when issuing the permit," Grooms said.
In a release, DHEC said it respects the commission's vote but feels comfortable issuing the permit, which has yet to be formally issued in writing.
Grooms said the attorney general's office would decide where the case winds up, and the possibilities include the Administrative Law Court or federal court.
The Corps declined comment.
Billy Birdwell, spokesman for its Savannah District, called disagreement between state agencies an internal matter for South Carolina. Its commander, Col. Jeffrey Hall, has said he doesn't need a permit from South Carolina and would be willing to move forward without one by claiming an exemption under the federal Clean Water Act.
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal also declined comment Monday. Last week, he credited the approval to South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who promised him over lunch in October that the board would hear Georgia's position. The board, made up of people Haley appointed earlier this year in a move she boasted as being business-friendly, could have declined to hear an appeal.
Grooms contends that the board helped Georgia's economy at South Carolina's expense. DHEC attorney John Harleston said last week the compromise satisfied environmental concerns, and other matters are outside the agency's jurisdiction.
At issue are billions of dollars in economic activity for Savannah and Charleston, which is also seeking to deepen its harbor.
Georgia Ports Authority executive director Curtis Foltz has said it's not a competition, and the region needs two successful ports.
"I just want our port to be more successful," Grooms said. "The deepening of that river has great implications in deciding who will be the ultimate winner. When our state agency favors Georgia over South Carolina, that's troubling."
Savannah's port ranks fourth in North America for container traffic, while Charleston's ranks 13th, according to the American Association of Port Authorities.
Statistics show Savannah's traffic has increased as Charleston's fell. From 2005 to 2010, container traffic in Charleston dropped by more than 30 percent, while Savannah's increased nearly 50 percent, according to association reports.
The states have proposed a joint port along the Savannah River in rural Jasper County, miles closer to the Atlantic Ocean than Savannah's. Grooms said he could agree to an amended permit, but as is, he believes the Jasper port is dead.
A wildlife biologist with the state Department of Natural Resources told the commission that no one in DHEC consulted his agency's scientists before accepting the compromise. While DNR is not a regulatory agency, its role is to provide scientifically based recommendations so DHEC can make good decisions, and it provided no input on the compromise, said Bob Perry, director of DNR's office of environmental programs.
Under the agreement, Georgia promises to pay maintenance costs — estimated at $1.2 million yearly — on devices the Corps plans to install to inject oxygen into the river, should the federal government not fund the upkeep. That's an issue because saltwater intrusion caused by dredging would further decrease the river's already low dissolved oxygen levels, which can prompt fish kills.
Also under the compromise, Georgia agreed to preserve roughly 1,500 additional acres of saltwater marsh elsewhere.
As for endangered fish, DHEC's lawyer said the agency now defers to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service, which issued an opinion Nov. 9 that the project likely wouldn't jeopardize the fish as long as the Corps meets certain conditions. Those include building a fish passage at a dam near Augusta, Ga., to provide sturgeon access to spawning habitat.