The S.C. Supreme Court's decision to hear a lawsuit filed over a permit issued for the Savannah River dredging project is welcome news.
But a court ruling on whether the state Department of Health and Environmental Control had the authority to issue a water-quality permit for the project would answer a relatively small question in a much larger issue: Where and how should increasingly scarce public dollars be spent to expand U.S. ports?
We don't have an answer to that fundamental question, yet the federal government and states are readying to spend billions of dollars so as not to be left out of new shipping business expected to come after a widened Panama Canal opens in 2014.
A comprehensive look could come from a provision authored by U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham. It directs the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to assess East Coast ports and determine where federal money should be invested to accommodate the post-Panamax ships. The report is due by June 30.
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Such an assessment is long overdue. In a special series on the ports issue published earlier this month, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that 10 ports are planning to spend $15 billion over the next decade to expand harbors and terminals, with about half coming from state and federal taxpayers.
The Savannah River project is a case in point. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers this past week released its final report on the project. The estimated cost to deepen the river from 42 feet to 47 feet (not the 48 feet Georgia officials had hoped for, nor the 50 feet South Carolina officials say is needed for the big ships) is $652 million. Nearly a third -- $292 million -- is to go toward mitigating environmental damage, according to the corps.
In addition, the corps has projected "no additional cargo volume through Savannah Harbor as a result of the proposed harbor deepening."
Georgia officials dispute that, but no one can say with certainty that this huge expenditure will pay off.
"It is an arms race," Don Sweeney, a former corps economist who teaches at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, told the newspaper. "Of course, all these ports want to be deepened because nobody wants to lose. But there's so much uncertainty in the industry that nobody knows if these will be good bets or bad bets."
In South Carolina, officials hope to deepen the Charleston port from 45 feet to 50 feet at an estimated cost of $300 million. The state House of Representatives has set aside $180 million in expected surplus money to help pay for the project; another $120 million could come from selling state bonds.
South Carolina is so far behind in the race for federal dollars lawmakers had to do something.
The competition between the Savannah and Charleston ports is only worsening. Caught in the crossfire is the proposed port in Jasper County, a joint project for South Carolina and Georgia.
The latest volley was fired this past week by state Sen. Larry Grooms of Berkeley County. Grooms has introduced a joint resolution that would clip the wings of South Carolina's representatives on the Joint Project Office board. Grooms was upset by a recent vote to study dumping dredge spoil from the Savannah River on the proposed Jasper port site. And he was upset that one of South Carolina's three representatives, Bill Bethea of Beaufort County, voted with the three Georgia representatives. The other two South Carolina members abstained from voting.
Grooms' resolution states that South Carolina's Jasper port board members must obtain written permission from the S.C. Savannah River Maritime Commission before they vote on any decision related to dredging; that a majority of South Carolina members must vote for any decision that could commit state money; and that future board members must be confirmed by the Senate.
State Sen. Tom Davis objects to the resolution, saying it would undo a lawfully executed intergovernmental agreement. He also objects to Grooms' criticism of Bethea's vote for the spoil disposal study, saying the move keeps the Jasper port moving forward even if the situation is not ideal.
The Jasper port certainly is a pawn in this port "arms race." It's hard to imagine that we'll get an objective report on its place in a regional port system, and that's unfortunate for all taxpayers..