Latest on Savannah River dredging: Corps of Engineers sent letters to Biden, Boehner, others in attempt to bypass S.C. objections

From AP reporter Russ Bynum’s Biden, Boehner got letters touting Savannah harbor:

The federal agency seeking to deepen the Savannah harbor sent letters to Vice President Joe Biden, House Speaker John Boehner and eight other Washington lawmakers saying the $652 million project should be allowed to bypass environmental review by South Carolina, which shares the Savannah River with Georgia.

The letters from the Army Corps of Engineers were disclosed in filings Thursday in U.S. District Court. The Corps wants to deepen more than 30 miles of the river from 42 feet to 47 feet to give supersized cargo ships room to reach the Port of Savannah.

The federal government gave final approval to the project in October and the Corps wants to begin construction in 2013. However, the federal Clean Water Act typically requires environmental permits from affected states.

Georgia granted one last year, but efforts to obtain approval in South Carolina are tied up in state and federal courts. In some cases, the law allows the Corps to bypass state permitting for projects specifically authorized by Congress that have undergone appropriate environmental studies.

This is certainly an interesting development, on multiple levels.

The Corps must view South Carolina’s objections to the project and/or various environmental lawsuits as strong enough to delay the dredging project for a significant period of time.

By going directly to key members of Congress, the Corps has potentially opened a can of worms. Not only will groups like the Southern Environmental Law Center know whom to lobby, but members of Congress would seem likely to engage directly — and behind the scenes — with the South Carolina delegation before pushing for strong action.

Consider the following editorial from the Charleston Post & Courier on Monday: Corps of Engineers should follow the law on Savannah River dredging proposal. An excerpt:

The Clean Water Act has presented some problems for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in its quest to deepen the Savannah River. So instead of addressing the problems, the Corps wants permission to ignore it.

That’s not the way it works, and the state congressional delegation should make certain it doesn’t happen.

The law dictates that the Corps cannot move forward with the Savannah dredging project unless South Carolina agrees it will not harm water quality. That’s reasonable. South Carolina and Georgia both border the Savannah River, and both should have a say in what goes on there.

I’m assuming that the South Carolina Congressional delegation will put a stop to any attempts to circumvent the process that gives individual states a say in decisions like this. Given the high cost of the dredging project — $652 million — it will be easy for spending-conscious Republican lawmakers to take a wait and see approach.