AJC’s “Port Wars”: part two looks at dredging depth, navigation, cost, and environmental impacts

Click here for part two of the AJC’s series on the issue of Savannah River dredging: Port Wars: Big dig, bigger competition.

The first subhead says a lot: “Deepened Georgia port will still be shallower than many of its rivals.” That, in a single phrase, covers much of the reason for objections about the project from South Carolina. Sure, there’s the interstate rivalry between Charleston and Savannah, but there are many S.C. officials who simply do not believe that dredging the Savannah River channel to 48 feet is insufficient to meet the demands of the future. That conclusion is not in any way supported by the Corps of Engineers’ analyses, but the Corps’ theories are being dismissed pretty widely on the Georgia side of the river too.

From the piece:

Meanwhile, most rival ports on the East and Gulf coasts are deeper than Savannah and will remain so after the Georgia port finishes its big dig. All are competing to lure more cargo.

And that’s the rub for Savannah and the rest of Georgia. Shipping lines increasingly rely upon ever more gigantic and efficient ships.

Result: The pressure on Savannah to expand — and on taxpayers to pay for the work — won’t let up.

“Never has so much been committed to a project with so many questions, so few answers and such a huge price tag,” said Steve Eames with the nonprofit South Carolina Coastal Conservation League, which is suing to stop the Savannah project to prevent environmental damage. “It’s madness.”

This part of the series deals a lot with issues of depth, of funding, and of the general difficult navigation of the 38-mile Savannah River channel.

It also touches upon some of the environmental issues:

More than a third of the project’s costs, though, are pledged to mitigate its impact on the environment. Still, green groups on both sides of the river have taken legal action to stop the issuance of water-quality permits. Chris DeScherer, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said the deepening project “is truly pushing the envelope on what we believe the river can handle, and it could have truly significant impacts on the environment.”
Of particular concern: A loss of oxygen could kill fish.

The deeper the river, the harder it is for oxygen to reach lower depths. Fish, particularly the endangered shortnose sturgeon, would suffer. The corps and the ports authority have committed at least $52 million to ensure the river is safe for fish, including the installation of machines to pump oxygen into the water, though the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service isn’t convinced it will work. Officials also promise nearly $33 million to restore salt marshes and to buy land to replace freshwater wetlands likely to be damaged.

Federal wildlife officials and environmental groups also worry the deepening will ruin a freshwater swath of the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge across the river from the Garden City Terminal.

Curtis Foltz, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority, said the environmental “mitigation will actually improve the condition of the river today in many categories.” He pointed, in particular, to reduced brackishness in one of the river’s tributaries.

I’d love to see Foltz find a credible environmentalist who thinks the river’s condition will be improved by dredging.

Click here to read about and link to part one in the series.

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