A proposed agreement to settle several lawsuits filed over the Savannah River deepening project sends a very clear message:
The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control board did not do enough to protect the state's interests and natural resources when it issued a water quality permit in November 2011 after the agency's staff had turned it down.
The settlement proposal greatly strengthens terms for issuing a permit for the controversial project and shows how far short the DHEC board's actions fell.
Among the environmental concerns raised about deepening the river from 42 feet to 47 feet for more than 30 miles are: its impact on oxygen levels in the river; digging up toxic cadmium from the river bottom and dumping it at the site of a proposed port on the Jasper County side of the river; saltwater intrusion into the Upper Floridan Aquifer, a key water source for South Carolina and Georgia; and saltwater intrusion into the freshwater wetlands of the Savannah Wildlife Refuge.
The relatively weak "concessions" agreed to by the Georgia Ports Authority in 2011 did not do enough to address those concerns, prompting the lawsuits, including one by South Carolina's Savannah River Maritime Commission. That group's objections resulted in a S.C. Supreme Court ruling that the commission, and not DHEC, had the right to negotiate terms for a water quality permit with officials from Georgia and the Army Corps of Engineers. The Maritime Commission has voted to approve the settlement.
Under the proposal:
Importantly, the proposal includes a 59-day test of oxygen injectors before dredging can begin in areas where fish would be most affected. Environmental groups and South Carolina agencies would have 30 days to review the results. If the injectors don't do the job, the water quality permit and the settlement agreement could be revoked and lawsuits re-filed.
Very telling is that the new agreement brings mitigation costs for the $652 million project to half the total cost.
The DHEC board was too quick to say "yes" to the water quality permit and did not include key agencies in the decision-making process. The political maneuvering was all too apparent. Gov. Nikki Haley asked the DHEC board she appointed to reconsider the staff decision. Staff and Georgia officials negotiated a settlement in a matter of hours, and the DHEC board promptly approved it.
South Carolina deserved better, and this settlement proposal shows how much more could have been done.