South Carolina should not fear port competition from Savannah

Governor of South CarolinaDecember 16, 2011 

Last week, the South Carolina Senate undertook the clearly political exercise unprecedented in South Carolina history of subpoenaing my staff to ask them questions about my office's involvement in the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control's granting of a permit for the dredging of the Savannah port. They concluded, unequivocally, what we had said all along: Neither I nor anyone who works for me played a role in this decision one way or another.

Now that this purely political inquiry, initiated by none other than my gubernatorial opponent Vincent Sheheen, is behind us, we have to have an honest discussion about where we're going in South Carolina and what the last few weeks have been about.

Let's start here, with the most important point: There is nothing that I am more committed to than the Port of Charleston. I know and believe in the Jasper Port. And I know that we have a port in Georgetown that has viability. I would never, ever, do anything that I believed would undermine the future of any of those ports. The ports are among the greatest economic development assets we have, and I will not stop until I see them succeed.

A little more than a year ago, I spoke in Charleston at the State of the Ports, and I told the people of this state, and every other, that I was tired of Georgia having its way with us on the ports. I meant that, every word of it, and I mean it now. But when I said it, I did not mean that we were going to stop Savannah, but that we were going to do something about our own port.

Not that we could have stopped Savannah. The Army Corps of Engineers, which is ultimately responsible for carrying out the dredging, had been quite clear: It intends to carry out the project, with or without DHEC's approval. Georgia was going to dredge for the Savannah port whether we liked it or not.

That being the case, DHEC got a fantastic deal for South Carolina. Where we would have gotten nothing, we instead got massive environmental concessions from Georgia, including the protection of almost 1,600 acres of wetlands and a commitment to pay to maintain the oxygen levels in the river for the next 50 years, protecting the Lowcountry's marine life.

Outside the environmental concessions, there's an important political point to be made. It's been fascinating to me that some of our leaders truly believe Congress would have funded the Charleston port project while South Carolina held Savannah's harbor hostage. That's just not realistic, and is, frankly, why Sen. Lindsey Graham was ecstatic when he heard Georgia had acceded to DHEC's permit requirements.

Sen. Graham needs the Georgia senators working with him to get Charleston's deepening money, not against him. And now he's got it. In mid-November, both Georgia senators and the Georgia governor publicly expressed their support for Charleston's project and their willingness to work to get it done. That's more than we ever had before.

Over the last 10 years, the leadership of this state at all levels failed in regard to the Charleston port. South Carolina watched Georgia invest in its port facilities, building distribution centers and transportation systems, and we sat on the sidelines and did nothing. And so, predictably, we also watched Savannah's port activity rise while ours dwindled, and Georgia's economy and citizens benefit from it while ours suffered.

That is no longer the case. Today, we are fighting for the business of this state and for the ports of this state. But our fight is not with Savannah, not in the sense that we can or should use an environmental permitting board to undercut its ability to expand.

No, our fight is with ourselves -- with the political culture that exists in South Carolina that for too long has been comfortable saying "no" and "can't" and for accepting failure. That's not who I am. It's not who I believe South Carolina is. And I won't settle for it. We deserve better, and we will get it.

And while some in this state may be afraid of real, honest competition, I am not. I am not scared of a 48-foot deep Georgia port 36 miles up the Savannah River with one-way traffic. Not when I know we're going to have a 50-foot deep Charleston Harbor with post-Panamax ships rolling in and out both ways, with dual rail and a good system of distribution centers.

No, I am not afraid of that kind of competition.

We're South Carolinians. We will win every time.

Nikki Haley, a Republican, is governor of South Carolina.

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