The path forward for the Jasper Ocean Terminal

info@islandpacket.comDecember 23, 2011 

It's now up to the courts to hear the legal, environmental and economic questions about the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control's surprising decision to reverse itself and approve Georgia's application to deepen the Savannah River.

But another issue of great importance to South Carolina has not been widely addressed -- the impact of DHEC's decision on the plans for a port terminal in Jasper County on the South Carolina side of the river.

For years, the South Carolina Ports Authority has worked cooperatively with Georgia, looking for a way to build a Jasper terminal that would be jointly owned by our states and save taxpayers on both sides of the river billions of dollars over time.

As details emerged on Georgia's plan to dredge the Savannah River, I loudly sounded the alarm that their plan could significantly delay if not kill the prospect for a new port terminal in Jasper.

Sadly, the recent decision by the DHEC board made our worst fears come true. DHEC granted Georgia a permit to dredge the Savannah River to a depth of 48 feet. If that happens, the taxpayers of South Carolina and Georgia would be foolish to invest billions of dollars in a Jasper Ocean Terminal.

Why? Because 48 feet is simply not deep enough to handle the large ships of the future. A Jasper Ocean Terminal would be obsolete before it could be built.

The drive to reduce the global transportation costs has resulted in bigger ships. Consider just a few recent developments.

Four major East Coast ports -- New York, Baltimore, Norfolk and Miami -- have already been authorized to take their harbors to a depth of 50 feet, setting a standard for new Panamax East Coast ports. In addition, a $5 billion expansion of the Panama Canal will open the East Coast to more and larger vessels.

In 1999, when the proposed Savannah River deepening project began, a depth of 48 feet may have been adequate. Today's global shipping market requires more.

Under present conditions, it's a bad deal for taxpayers to spend billions of dollars on public infrastructure for a Jasper terminal served by a river that lacks the depth needed for modern global commerce.

Therefore, based on a careful assessment of all the empirical data, the South Carolina Ports Authority board voted to suspend funding for Jasper port studies. It's simply irresponsible to continue funding a project that has been rendered unwise by DHEC's decision.

However, there is a path to keep the Jasper Ocean Terminal alive.

First, let us all agree that the Savannah River deepening project as proposed is inadequate to handle the larger ships already serving world trade, as well as those being built.

Next, the Army Corps of Engineers should consider dredging a two-way, 50-foot channel to the Jasper site as a viable alternative for the purposes of the Final Environmental Impact Statement.

The Savannah River Maritime Commission has already taken legal action, asking DHEC to study deepening to the Jasper site as a safer and more cost-effective alternative. Let us hope the Corps will agree that's a good idea, or at least conduct a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement.

In the meantime, present conditions require us to re-visit the intergovernmental agreement between South Carolina and Georgia. To move the Jasper Ocean Terminal forward, our two states should take the following steps:

  • Release the 50-year federal easements on the entire 1,500-acre Jasper port site by a defined, mutually agreed upon date and adopt a new dredged material management plan.

  • Share equally the significant costs of roads and other infrastructure to the site.

  • Measure the navigational capacity of the constrained Savannah River to evaluate how much new ship traffic can be accommodated.

  • Determine if there is significant private sector interest in going forward with the Jasper port earlier than demand warrants based on the port capacity in Savannah and Charleston.

  • Ensure equal, dual-rail access from both major railroads.

  • The South Carolina Ports Authority has made a sincere long-term commitment to a Jasper Ocean Terminal. And Georgia has assured us their plans for deepening the Savannah River are unrelated to their commitment to Jasper.

    In good faith, we ask Georgia to join us in supporting the actions outlined above. For the citizens of South Carolina and Georgia, agreeing to these basic terms would represent a positive step in the development of a Jasper Ocean Terminal.

    Bill Stern, a Columbia businessman, is chairman of the South Carolina Ports Authority.

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