Beaufort News

Groups threaten suits to stop dredging of Savannah River

At least two factions in South Carolina will sue if necessary to stop Georgia from dredging the Savannah River, officials say.

The threats came Monday from the Coastal Conservation League, an environmental advocacy group, and Tuesday from S.C. Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Bonneau, chairman of both the Transportation Committee and the Review & Oversight Commission on the S.C. State Ports Authority.

Georgia wants to dredge the river from 42 to 48 feet to better accommodate bigger ships expected to travel through an expanded Panama Canal starting in 2014, but several South Carolina groups criticized that plan Tuesday in comments to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is overseeing the proposal.

The groups say the plan could damage the river's navigability and the region's environment and doesn't explain how South Carolina's economy would benefit.

They said it could endanger South Carolinians' drinking water and preclude development of a port planned in Jasper County on South Carolina's side of the river.

That port would be several miles closer to the ocean than Savannah, and proponents argue it would be less environmentally damaging than Georgia's plan.

Among the groups' comments:

  • The Southern Environmental Law Center, representing several environmental groups including the league, said recent federal studies show Georgia's plan is "unneeded and wasteful."
  • Grooms' port oversight commission called the studies "unbalanced and unsound" and suggested Georgia should withdraw, amend and resubmit its plan.
  • The Savannah River Maritime Commission, a group charged with representing South Carolina's commercial interests in the river, said it has "significant concerns" about the plan.
  • The S.C. Department of Natural Resources said the plan benefits Georgia to South Carolina's detriment and that the river should not be dredged so deeply.
  • If their concerns aren't addressed, Grooms and league officials say, they likely will sue.

    "It is unclear what the legislative role in resolving this issue will be and many project impacts improperly considered by the Corps of Engineers in the draft Environmental Impact Statement makes litigation likely," the league said in an e-mail to supporters Monday.

    Grooms expects state agencies also would go to court.

    Grooms said he and Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, opposed Georgia's plan on the Senate floor Tuesday during a discussion with Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, an advocate of a Jasper port who also has criticized Georgia's plan.

    If Georgia and the corps don't reverse course, Grooms said later, "you're going to see this thing litigated in federal court for many years to come."