Conservation groups sue over Savannah River dredging plan

Associated PressFebruary 3, 2012 

CHARLESTON -- Three conservation groups sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Friday, saying a South Carolina pollution permit is needed for a planned $600-million deepening of the Savannah River shipping channel because the work will dredge up toxic silt.

Deepening the 32-mile shipping channel will dredge cadmium that will be placed on South Carolina soil, the suit contends.

"Defendants' proposed deepening of the Savannah Harbor and the accompanying pollution of South Carolina's environment is one of the greatest threats to the health of Savannah River in recent history," said the suit, brought in state court in Jasper County on the South Carolina side of the river.

The suit, filed by the Southern Environmental Law Center, was brought on behalf of the Savannah Riverkeeper, the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League and the South Carolina Wildlife Federation.

The Georgia Ports Authority wants to deepen the channel by six feet so its Garden City port can handle larger ships that will call when the Panama Canal is widened in two years.

The lawsuit asks a judge to declare that the corps needs a South Carolina Pollution Control Act permit to put dredge spoils on land. It notes the corps' own draft environmental impact statement on the deepening indicated there is cadmium in clays that would be removed as the river bottom is deepened.

It said the deepening project, which has been studied for 15 years, "would degrade water quality, destroy marshlands, endanger a national wildlife refuge, put at risk threatened and endangered species and other wildlife and alter forever one of South Carolina's and Georgia's most valuable aquatic resources."

Billy Birdwell, a spokesman for the Savannah District of the corps, said the agency has not seen the lawsuit and doesn't comment on pending litigation.

"The federal government cannot ignore South Carolina's process to protect the health of the state's natural resources and its residents against the risks and harm of deepening. As it stands now, the corps proposes to dredge up potentially toxic pollutants," said Chris DeScherer, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

The suit is not the only obstacle facing the deepening project from South Carolina, whose Charleston port is in keen competition with the Georgia ports.

This week, the state Senate unanimously gave second approval to a measure suspending the authority of the state's environmental agency to make dredging decisions for the Savannah River.

The joint resolution is designed to help lawmakers rescind a water quality permit granted by the Department of Health and Environment Control last year giving South Carolina approval for deepening the shipping channel.

In the South Carolina House, both Republicans and Democrats took turns last week decrying the decision as disastrous to the state's economy and environment and approved the measure 111-0.

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