Governors must step up to get Jasper port on track

info@islandpacket.comDecember 22, 2011 

I read with interest in last Friday's newspaper the opinion piece by Gov. Nikki Haley defending the state Department of Health and Environmental Control board's decision to green-light a project by the Georgia Ports Authority and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to deepen the Savannah River from 42 feet to 48 feet.

I agree with Gov. Haley that too much time has been spent debating whether she influenced that decision. She is South Carolina's chief executive, and she has the right to voice an opinion as to what she thinks is in our state's best interest. Enough said about that.

But I disagree when she says Georgia's dredging project would not undermine the Jasper County port. State Attorney General Alan Wilson is right when he says the project "would eviscerate the proposed Jasper Ocean Terminal by placing cadmium-laden dredge disposal material at the Jasper location for the next 50 years."

Allowing the 1,500-acre Jasper port site to be Georgia's dumping ground is legally and morally indefensible. The Corps of Engineers already has an easement on the surrounding 8,500 acres to handle that spoil. Moreover, Congress told the Corps in 2007 to study eliminating the Jasper port as a dump site, and more than $4 million has already been spent on that study.

Private companies want to invest hundreds of millions of their capital to build the Jasper port and to create thousands of high-paying jobs, but they can't so long as the site is slated to be a spoil dump. The DHEC board had the leverage and could have insisted that the Georgia Ports Authority and the Corps remove this job-killing impediment but chose instead to sanction it.

Gov. Haley says she is unafraid of "real, honest competition" and "not scared of a 48-foot deep Georgia port 36 miles up the Savannah River with one-way traffic." I agree the Port of Savannah, even with a deepened channel, will be unable to serve post-Panamax ships, which require a 50-foot draft. But that is an argument against Georgia's dredging project -- and against spending $600 million in taxpayers' money -- not an argument for it.

Moreover, if "real, honest competition" is the goal, then the DHEC board should have championed the Jasper port, which is much closer to the ocean and whose channel could be dredged to a 50-foot depth and in a manner that does allow two-way traffic -- with far fewer environmental consequences.

Gov. Haley's opinion that the Corps of Engineers had the right to dredge "with or without DHEC's approval" relies, incorrectly, on a federal district court decision, now on appeal, denying attempts by the New Jersey and Delaware state environmental protection agencies to rescind, several years after the fact, their prior approvals of a dredging project. Here, however, no approval for Georgia's dredging had been provided by a South Carolina agency.

Gov. Haley is my friend , and I take no pleasure in publicly disputing her contention that "the DHEC board got a fantastic deal for South Carolina." But it didn't, and in order to get the Jasper port built, it is important that she and the people of South Carolina realize and accept that fact. Anything short of that will lead to complacency and a lack of will to do what must be done.

Here now is the way forward: The bi-state agreement to develop the Jasper port obligates the South Carolina State Ports Authority and the Georgia Ports Authority to diligently seek the release of the Jasper port site as a spoil dump site. By advocating a project that puts the Jasper port in a 50-year spoil-dump purgatory, I believe the Georgia Ports Authority has breached that obligation.

The bi-state agreement also specifically provides that, if a party breaches an obligation, then such must be resolved through "mediation by the incumbent governors of Georgia and South Carolina." The stage, therefore, is now set for Gov. Haley and Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal to put the Jasper port back on track.

That means releasing the Jasper port from the threat of being a spoil dump. It also means modifying the dredging plan for the Savannah River to provide a 50-foot channel depth to the Jasper port and a channel width to that port that allows two-way shipping traffic.

On Tuesday, Gov. Deal promised to "continue to work with Gov. Nikki Haley and Sen. Lindsey Graham to develop the Jasper port, a joint effort that will boost the economies of both states." Pretty words, but it is long past time for Georgia's officials to meet their legal and moral obligations and to back them up with deeds. And we need Gov. Haley to make sure they do.

Tom Davis represents Beaufort County in the state Senate.

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