Deepening the shipping channel in the Savannah Harbor comes down to a paradox 13 years and $36 million in the making.
Navigation experts say the new generation of container ships, a considerably larger fleet, will be able to pull into this port without running aground only about 120 days a year -- and only while steaming at a dangerously slow speed. The channel must be dredged deeper, they say.
Meanwhile, environmental experts say the ecological destruction that would happen at the proposed depth would be grave. The channel cannot go that deep, they say.
Both sides recently addressed the Savannah River Maritime Commission, a group that represents South Carolina's interests in the jointly owned channel. Joint ownership means both South Carolina and Georgia both must sign off on the project at a critical time in a changing shipping industry, when every port in the country wants a competitive advantage.
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Commission chairman Dean Moss of Beaufort acknowledges the delicate nature of discussions.
"This is the most important public works project in Georgia," Moss said. "If South Carolina kills it, it's going to sour relations between the states. You can't consider it as just a simple yea-or-nay project."
Heated discussions could affect a plan for the two states to cooperate on building a joint terminal in Jasper County.
A recent report by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project proposes dredging the channel from 42 to 47 feet. The Georgia Ports Authority wants to take the project one foot deeper.
Ports across the country are scrambling for approval and funding to dredge deeper before the 2014 Panama Canal expansion is completed. As that time, larger ships will be able to carry more cargo than ever.
But heavier ships draw more water and require deeper channels, so ports are planning expansion projects and looking for money to complete them. Georgia intends to spend $800 million to dredge from 42 to 48 feet, a depth a Jasper port would already have with the right tides.
Govs. Mark Sanford and Sonny Perdue shook hands along the South Carolina-Georgia border in 2007 and promised to move forward on developing a container terminal together. Both have left office, and their successors are trying to get their states a step ahead.
Gov. Nikki Haley has promised to keep South Carolina competitive.
"You now have a governor who does not like to lose," Haley told a Charleston maritime group. "Georgia has had their way with us for way too long, and I don't have the patience to let it happen anymore."
The Savannah Morning News recently weighed in with an editorial criticizing the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control's decision to deny a water quality certification for the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project. Under the headline "Sour grapes," the editorial suggested that South Carolina's delays could give the Port of Charleston a leg up over Savannah, which grew its container volume in the years Charleston lagged behind.
"This could explain why our neighbors to the north might be jealous of the booming success of the Georgia Ports Authority," the editorial concluded. "It is, however, no excuse to sabotage Savannah's decade-long effort to secure federal clearance and funding for an infrastructure project important to the economic health of the entire Southeast."
Georgia's new governor, Nathan Deal, last week called for $32 million in state money for deepening the Savannah Harbor.
GASPING FOR AIR
For every foot the Savannah port gets deeper, the wetlands around it will suffer, according to Bob Perry, director of environmental programs for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. More depth means more salt water from the ocean spilling into the marshes, he said.
The Savannah River project calls for compensation -- a payout in the form of protecting adjacent wetlands -- instead of restoring the habitat directly affected by the dredging.
To account for water quality impacts, oxygen would be pumped into the water artificially.
"It would require machinery, fuel," Perry said. "It would not be considered a 'green' project in a day and age when people are thinking that way."
Plus, he said, the mechanical oxygen system has never been used on this large of a scale.
Perry's department plans to recommend dredging to 44 or 45 feet, adding, "We believe that the alternatives for a lesser amount of dredging is about as far as we can go, from an environmental standpoint, and be comfortable."
That's why the Coastal Conservation League, a South Carolina environmental group, supports the Jasper project instead, according to Andrea Malloy in the league's Beaufort office. Because the Jasper project is a truer "ocean terminal" with considerably less river navigation required, it requires a little more than half the dredging of the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project.
"If you stop at Jasper and made Jasper the vehicle for accommodating ships, it would not impact the freshwater habitat at all," Malloy said.
She and her colleagues also want more time and information about the Savannah dredging proposal.
"There's this overwhelming sense in Savannah that, because the Corps has studied it for (more than a decade), everything's perfect," Malloy said. "That's not actually the case.'