Beaufort News

S.C. officials slow work on Jasper port plan

GARDEN CITY, Ga. -- South Carolina maritime leaders managed to stall work on a shipping terminal planned for Jasper County after hours of discussion Tuesday at the Georgia Ports Authority.

The agency set up to oversee the two-state project adopted a budget not to exceed $500,000 for the year, which provides the money needed to proceed with work already approved last year. But it does not fund two important new studies necessary to move the terminal forward.

"It's lower than we would like to see it," said Georgia Ports Authority Executive Director Curtis Foltz after the meeting of the Jasper Ocean Terminal Joint Project Office.

The members of the office also gave direction for their leaders to determine whether the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will complete those next two studies in its own work so they don't duplicate effort and expense.

Tensions between maritime leaders in South Carolina and Georgia became obvious last month when S.C. State Ports Authority Chairman Bill Stern sent a letter to his counterpart to the south, Alec Poitevint, saying he can't support spending any more Palmetto State money on a project that seems less and less likely to happen as time goes on.

That doubt comes from the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project.

After devoting more than a decade and tens of millions of dollars to the plan to deepen the Port of Savannah's shipping channel, the Corps of Engineers released a draft report in mid-November and asked for public comment from late November until early January. Interested groups on both sides of the jointly owned river asked for more time to read through the reams of paper, and the Corps granted a few weeks.

South Carolina environmental experts say the channel, if dredged too deep, could cause tremendous ecological damage. Also, South Carolina navigation experts say the channel must go deeper or else the new generation of container ships would run aground most days of the year.

And though Georgia hopes to take the channel to 48 feet, Stern said it must go to a 50-foot depth to support two-way shipping.

"Let me make it clear: On the South Carolina side, we are in no way trying to kill the Jasper port," Stern said. "We're trying to protect the Jasper port."

He said after the meeting that the decision to approve a slimmed-down Jasper budget for now accomplished the goal he had in sending Poitevint the February letter.

Poitevint, eager to proceed with the Jasper terminal, instead highlighted the national importance of the task that the two sides debated Tuesday.

"We're dealing with something that's a lot bigger than any of us here," he said. "Governors come and go, and members of ports authorities come and go, but what we have here is a mission of long term."