COLUMBIA, S.C. — The commission tasked with representing South Carolina’s interests when it comes to dredging the Savannah River has taken on a higher profile as it wades into several legal disputes over the $650 million project.
The Savannah River Maritime Commission had operated quietly since it was set up in 2007 as part of legislators’ response to a lawsuit over a proposed port in Jasper County. That lawsuit was ultimately dismissed. But the panel — comprised of 12 appointed members ranging from the chairmen of various legislative committees to designees from the governor and other state agencies — stayed intact, empowered to negotiate and enter into agreements on South Carolina’s behalf.
Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Bonneau, who sits on the panel as chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said the original plan was for Georgia to set up a similar commission. The plan was for the two groups would negotiate issues affecting both states. But that never happened.
Now, with the Jasper project languishing, the South Carolina panel is fighting for the state to have a say in a controversial project to deepen the Savannah River. And it’s taking on a higher-profile role amid a firestorm surrounding a project permit approved by state environmental officials, Grooms said.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has proposed a plan to dredge and deepen the Savannah River to accommodate the higher traffic and bigger ships that will accompany the expansion of the Panama Canal in 2014. Last year, South Carolina’s Department of Health and Environmental Control board granted Georgia the necessary water quality permits.
The decision reversed a rejection from its staff, which had cited unacceptable harm to the waterway’s endangered sturgeon and fragile marshes. The board’s approval came only after Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal made a last-minute visit to discuss the issue with South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who appoints the board’s members.
The maritime commission has appealed that decision, arguing that DHEC improperly granted the permit. The lawmakers who created the commission have also supported the panel, unanimously approving a bill to suspend DHEC’s ability to consider dredging issues. The bill was retroactive to 2007, the year of the commission’s inception. Haley vetoed the measure but was quickly overridden by both chambers.
The commission has also appeared before South Carolina’s Supreme Court, joining with environmentalists in a lawsuit over whether DHEC even had the ability to issue water permits. The high court hasn’t issued its ruling. But during oral arguments last month, its top jurist said DHEC broke the law when it shut the commission out of negotiations over the project.
“You disobeyed the law when you did not involve the Savannah River Maritime Commission in the settlement of this matter,” Chief Justice Jean Toal said to an attorney for the agency.
And last week, the commission asked a federal judge for permission to take part in environmentalists’ lawsuit against the Army Corps. The lawsuit argues that the corps needs a South Carolina pollution permit and says the project will mean dredging toxic cadmium in river silt that will be dumped on the South Carolina side of the river — and on the proposed site for the stalled Jasper Port.
The corps has said that it doesn’t even need state permits to proceed with the dredging project. But Grooms said that argument is based on a case in another state that involved dredging for maintenance purposes, not a project like the Savannah River proposal.
“This is much different,” Grooms said. “We firmly believe that they have to have a state permit.”
That request is still pending in federal court. As all of the cases proceed, Grooms said that the commission, while originally tasked with dealing with the Jasper Port issue, has been pitted against other agencies within South Carolina — particularly DHEC — as it tries to defend its role and mission.
“DHEC should have been consulting with the Savannah River Maritime Commission as required by law the whole time,” Grooms said. “We’re exercising our authority by law to examine the dredging permit, and we do believe that it needlessly harms the economy and the environment of the state.”
Curtis Foltz, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority, said the commission is standing in the way of development opportunities that could benefit states on both sides of the river.
“It is becoming increasingly clear that the Savannah River Maritime Commission is a commission consisting mostly of South Carolina politicians and not individuals with environmental or scientific backgrounds,” Foltz said. “And all of their actions seem to be on the negative side toward economic development and future port growth.”
Catherine Templeton, DHEC’s director, said the agency had been working with the commission and will continue to do so, however the courts decide.
“If the court decides the commission should take the lead, we will help them establish a framework to administer their duties,” Templeton said. “If not, we will continue to partner with the commission as we have successfully in the past.”