A few thoughts and links regarding today’s column about dredging and jobs

Click here to read my City Talk column in the Savannah Morning News> about Savannah River dredging, jobs, and the environment.

Two weeks ago, AJC PolitiFact examined Governor Deal’s claims that dredging would create jobs in the state:

We found that there’s not much jobs data. Officials from the Army Corps of Engineers and the Georgia Ports Authority and experts we interviewed said they were not aware of any economic impact study that analyzes how a deeper port would impact area jobs once it’s up and running.

The Army Corps of Engineers did conduct an economic impact study, but it didn’t focus on jobs. It studied how the project would increase shipping efficiency across the nation, and the economic benefits this would create.

So far so good, but then PolitiFact relies on an expert who directly contradicts the Corps of Engineers’ economic analysis:

Though there are not many specifics on the deepening project’s potential to create jobs, it’s clear that the Savannah port has a profound impact on employment in Georgia. Jeffrey Humphreys, director of the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia, has conducted studies about the economic impact of the state’s port system.

In 2009, workers held 14,131 full- and part-time slots at the Savannah port’s publicly owned facilities, according to a Selig Center study.

If you add in the jobs to make the materials those workers used, as well as those to staff the places where those workers spent their pay, these jobs total 21,628, the study said.

Because of major changes in the shipping industry, Georgia risks losing jobs if the port isn’t deepened, Humphreys said.

There is NO evidence in the official analysis that the port would handle less cargo if the port is not deepened. In fact, the official analysis says that the amount of cargo handled will increase at the same pace whether the river is dredged or not.

For a strong and entertaining piece from Jessica Leigh Lebos about dredging and jobs, take a look at Kool-Aid is sweeter than BS.

If you want to look at a great summary of the Corps of Engineers actual findings in its environmental and economic analyses, go to the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project FAQ.

Some of the key economic findings in that FAQ:

11) How did you determine the net national economic benefits?
• A deeper shipping channel allows larger and fewer ships to move the same amount of goods at a lower transportation cost. Fewer, larger ships also would lessen congestion in the harbor, according to the GRR. A deeper channel means larger ships can enter and leave with less delay waiting for high tides.
• With regard to the benefits, the basic economic benefit is the reduction in the costs to transport the commodities.
This reduction represents a national economic development (NED) gain because when transportation costs are reduced, those dollars are available for productive use elsewhere in the economy. We do not try to estimate where exactly these resources are used; from a NED perspective it would be almost impossible to do so.
• The term “efficiencies” means a savings in transportation costs. Those savings may be passed on to the consumer through lower prices in the goods purchased.

There’s not a single concise summary in this particular document about the myriad environmental impacts, but here are a few of the key questions:

24) Will the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge lose a significant portion of freshwater habitat?
• Depending on the depth selected, the project may convert up to 340 acres of freshwater wetlands into brackish marsh. Some of these converted wetlands are located in the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge. To mitigate for those impacts, the project would purchase up to 2,680 acres of threatened wetlands. The US Fish and Wildlife Service previously identified the lands that the Corps is proposing to acquire as valuable additions to the Refuge. We also expect there will be a loss of approximately 15 acres of brackish marsh scattered along the project. To mitigate for those impacts, the project would restore about 29 acres of saltmarsh at one of the Corps’ old sediment placement sites on the refuge.

25) What impacts will the deepening have on dissolved oxygen in the Savannah River?
• Harbor deepening and saltwater intrusion lead to a decrease in the already low dissolved oxygen content in the lower Savannah River. During hot summer months, dissolved oxygen drops below the state standards, which are set to protect fish and shellfish in the estuary. We conducted extensive analyses to identify the effects of the project and evaluate possible mitigation. Those analyses identified oxygen injection in several places in the lower Savannah River as the best solution. Although we are not allowed to improve the existing low dissolved oxygen levels under this project, we are permitted to offset its impacts so that the dissolved oxygen would not be any lower as a result of a harbor deepening.
• We plan to use devices called Speece cones to oxygenate river water which will then be mixed back into the river. This technology has been used successfully elsewhere. Construction and placement of the Speece cones is included in construction costs. Operation and maintenance of the Speece cones will be part of the on-going, routine costs of maintaining the harbor.

27) The environmental damage is going to occur locally, why should we support a project that focuses on national benefits?
• We were directed by Congress to determine deepening benefits nationally. Since each American taxpayer will contribute to any deepening, each taxpayer has a stake in any deepening, including environmental mitigations, so we logically would focus on national benefits.

And even more from question #10 about environmental studies that are ongoing:

o Additional air analyses will be conducted to better understand the impacts on the community from expected future growth of the harbor, but EPA will not delay approval of the project for the results.
o The Corps of Engineers will ensure a common understanding of mitigation for functional losses of wetlands. The Corps of Engineers is conducting additional analyses to more clearly characterize communities that surround the port. Additional outreach will be performed to environmental justice communities as the process proceeds.
o At the request of the Commerce Department (NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries), the Corps will further review the design of the fish passage at the New Savannah Bluff Lock & Dam. The Corps is also reexamining other potential ways to mitigate for impacts to shortnose sturgeon habitat.
o At the request of the Interior Department, the Corps is reconsidering its proposals for post-construction monitoring and adaptive management.

As you can see, there are all sorts of known environmental impacts and a fair number of known unknowns. And what about the unknown unknowns — the things that could happen that no one has so far anticipated?

Rather than trying to push this project down the throats of citizens with the untruths that there will surely be jobs created, that the port will die without dredging, and that there will be no serious environmental impacts, I hope area and state leaders will simply tell the truth about this project.

There’s plenty of reason to support dredging after reading all the Corps’ economic and environmental analyses.

And there’s plenty of reason to oppose dredging after reading all the Corps’ economic and environmental analyses.

2 comments for “A few thoughts and links regarding today’s column about dredging and jobs

  1. Robin Sherman
    February 5, 2012 at 2:12 pm

    Nice post. Bill. I hope there is a good way to mitigate the environmental problems.

    I’d like to see more information published that delves deeper into the local economic gain/loss issues.

    I’ve also wondered:
    — How many ships are at the larger size?
    — What percentage of the larger ships would we expect to use the Savannah harbor? How much cargo?
    — How many of the companies that use our harbor now would want to use larger ships? How much cargo?
    — How many companies that do not use the harbor now might use the Savannah harbor if it was deepened? How much cargo?
    — What is the specific evidence that the harbor would grow or not grow if we do not deepen the harbor?
    –What exactly is the methodology used to get answers to these questions? How good is the research?
    — Is there a 3rd party that has data? Relying on the Corps is relying on an entity with a vested interest.

    Thank you.

    • bill dawers
      February 5, 2012 at 3:46 pm

      Most of those questions are answered, to the extent that’s possible, in the Corp’s General Re-evalution: http://www.sas.usace.army.mil/shexpan/SHEPreport.html

      In particular, some information is in this section, around p. 81, re the world fleet: http://www.sas.usace.army.mil/shexpan/documents/SHEP_GRR_Section_5.pdf The largest vessels are going to make up a small percentage of the world fleet for decades to come.

      As far as I know, it is clear that shipping companies are not going to suddenly mothball their current fleets, and it is by no means clear how quickly the companies currently coming to Savannah would try to switch over to larger ships.

      Your 3 final questions are answered in the Corps’ projections, but they are obviously only projections. The Corps assumes that all the ports on the East Coast will see increased containerized cargo, whether they are deeper or not. Without deepening, we’ll get the same amount of cargo, but it will come in less efficiently on more ships.

      From the Corps’ discussion of their methodology, it seems that they took a huge number of factors into account.

      I have not seen any sort of 3rd party data regarding the economic projections that does not rely on the Corps’ work.

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