Water-drinkers have DHEC to thank

January 17, 2011 

The idiom "haste makes waste" came immediately to mind when learning of the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control's denial of the 401 permit.

By way of background, on Nov. 15, the Army Corps of Engineers released the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Savannah Harbor Deepening, a proposal to dredge 38 miles of the Savannah Harbor to a depth of 48 feet.

The Corps set a deadline for public comment to close on Jan. 25. DHEC was held to this same deadline for a water-quality permit, the 401 certification.

The EIS process is a vehicle for public and agency comment -- at large. There is however no actual decision point -- no thumbs up or thumbs down -- for a South Carolina agency within the EIS process.

The Corps can either take the comments submitted into consideration or leave them. In contrast, the water quality permit is a true point of evaluation and action for South Carolina. The 401 certification is either granted or denied, per the Federal Clean Water Act.

DHEC communicated from the outset that 60 days was insufficient for a competent review of such an immense and complicated project. In fact, the Clean Water Act permits a state agency such as DHEC to take up to a year to review this type of permit application. DHEC formally requested additional time, but the request was denied.

Accordingly DHEC was compelled to deny the water-quality permit based solely on insufficient time allowed to the agency by the Corps.

The Coastal Conservation League agrees with DHEC's reasoning. Interestingly, so does Georgia Environmental Protection Division. Georgia EPD concurred that they also would need more than the 60-day time limit -- stating that they will not be able to reach their decision until March.

However, the Georgia representative to EPD also stated that, "He's given the Corps a verbal assurance that it will eventually receive the certification, but he won't have even a draft finished before the end of February."

It does not inspire faith in the official review process to announce this pre-determined conclusion.

Beaufort residents should offer our support to this DHEC decision. Too often South Carolina has had little voice in what occurs in the Savannah River -- a water resource taxed by industry and population growth in Georgia.

Beaufort depends on that river -- both the surface water and the aquifer beneath it -- for our drinking water. This decision by DHEC sends a clear message that the agency is taking seriously its obligation to protect this vital natural resource.

Additional time is needed first and foremost due to the sheer volume of information. Hastened review could lead to approvals of uncertain and untested mitigation methods -- exposing a critical source of drinking water to unnecessary risk.

The reason is not simply that there is an overwhelming amount of information to review, although that is in itself an understatement.

Additionally, there is a tremendous amount of information missing from the public document, specifically the models Army Corps of Engineers used to reach their conclusions. The Southern Environmental Law Center has submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the Corps of Engineers requesting additional information. The Corps has indicated that this information will be supplied in March. The public comment period ends this month. Something is wrong with this chronology.

The missing information is not insignificant -- it is essentially the "how" of the Corps of Engineers' conclusions. It is impossible to evaluate the findings of these studies when we do not have a critical component of how these findings were reached.

We are asking of the Corps, "Show your math." The Corps of Engineers' studies essentially states that the answer is four, and we got there by doing math -- but they do not show the math.

One example of this missing "math" is the study of potential impacts to the Upper Floridan Aquifer. Water quality experts engaged to review the EIS compiled a two-page list of models missing from the study.

This is our drinking water at stake. We have the right to review every single step that led to a conclusion of "no impact" -- which is what the study asserts.

The waste in this case -- permanent waste of our natural resources -- is too high a price to pay for the haste that is being urged by the Corps of Engineers. Without adequate time to review, we risk forgoing better mitigation alternatives and better protections for our vital water resource, the Savannah River.

This Environmental Impact Study and all of its associated studies are incredibly complex. Some of the proposed mitigation is brand new technology, completely and utterly unproven on this massive scale.

DHEC is not alone in their assertion that more time is needed to review this study.

Beaufort residents will be living with the impacts of this dredging forever, a few extra months to review those impacts hardly seems unreasonable.

Andrea Malloy is the interim director of the south coast office of the Coastal Conservation League

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