The group charged with overseeing South Carolina's commercial interests in the Savannah River on Tuesday criticized recent federal studies of Georgia's request to deepen the river to accommodate the next generation of cargo ships at the Garden City terminal.
The Savannah River Maritime Commission didn't take a formal position at the meeting, but several members and the group's consultants said the long-awaited studies underestimate the environmental impact of dredging 35 miles of the channel to make it six feet deeper and allow passage of the larger ships the Panama Canal is expected to be able to handle beginning about 2014.
They said the studies also don't sufficiently explain what economic benefits South Carolina would reap.
"There's no basis in the documents for South Carolina to have a reason to support the project," commission chairman Dean Moss said.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' studies, released late last year, concluded the channel can be deepened to 48 feet without unacceptable harm to the environment.
Corps officials declined to comment because they didn't have a representative at the meeting.
Commission members also questioned if South Carolina could build a port in Jasper County, on its side of the river, if it supports Georgia's plan.
The states are working together to develop a 1,500-acre port in Jasper County -- about six miles closer to the ocean than Garden City -- as a result of a delicate political compromise initiated by their governors in 2007.
Commission members worry Georgia's deepening plan could discourage development of that port because it calls for dredge spoils to be dumped on the Jasper County site and could clog the river with ships.
"What kind of development can occur along the river if it's all consumed by this action?" asked Mike McShane, a commission member and board chairman of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.
Commission member and Charleston attorney Mikell Harper said South Carolina could be "shut out" if federal officials approve Georgia's plan.
"This guarantees Georgia access and not South Carolina going forward," Harper said.