Objective assessments difficult to find

Sorting out the rights and wrongs of deepening the Savannah River shipping channel and that project's impacts on the proposed Jasper County port is getting harder and harder to do.

The problem is not the science or the economics of the project, although there is much to debate on both those topics. It's the politics of it all.

When South Carolina officials object to the project's environmental impacts is their criticism colored by the project's effect on the Charleston port's future and the prospects for building a port on the South Carolina side of the Savannah River?

Are Georgia officials sincere when they say dumping dredge spoil on the Jasper site -- now owned by both states -- is a plus for the proposed port because the site needs to be built up before construction begins? Continuing to dump dredge spoil there is part of the Army Corps of Engineers' plan for deepening the river channel, an $800 million project Georgia officials consider vital to the Savannah port's future. Or would it put off for decades the building of a port six miles closer to the ocean?

The idea that it's a plus for the Jasper project seems at odds with conclusions drawn by the Corps. In its environmental report on the harbor deepening project, the Corps said it had looked at the Jasper site as an alternative to deepening the river channel to 48 feet for 35 miles, but had concerns about building on dredged material, the cost to build a terminal there, transportation requirements for the undeveloped site and the environmental impacts of replacing the site for dredge spoil disposal.

If the Corps concludes that building on dredged material is detrimental, why is dumping more dredge spoil there a good idea?

No one should be surprised by all this. The harbor-deepening project and the Jasper port long have been linked. The 2007 agreement on joint ownership worked out by Govs. Sonny Perdue and Mark Sanford called for South Carolina's help in getting the Savannah River dredged. Clearly, Georgia did not want the Jasper port to become an alternative to deepening the river channel all the way to Garden City.

The governors' agreement also called for the states to continue to work to develop long-term strategies on the use of the Savannah River and protecting the Upper Floridan Aquifer, a primary source of drinking water in the region, from further contamination from salt water.

Dean Moss, general manager for Beaufort-Jasper Water and Sewer Authority and chairman of the Savannah River Maritime Commission, worries that South Carolina's objections to the harbor deepening could negatively affect the state's work with Georgia on other issues, such as saltwater intrusion, discharge rights into the river and water allocations within the Savannah River basin.

The Maritime Commission is expected to release its position on the harbor project today, the deadline for comment on the Corps' environmental impact assessment. It is expected to recommend minor deepening or maintenance and a focus on the Jasper terminal.

In 2007, Congress ordered the Corps to study the feasibility of improving the Savannah River channel to support a port at the Jasper County site and removing the easement for dumping dredge spoil there. The provision was part of that year's Water Resource Development Act.

State Sen. Tom Davis, who long has been working to get the Jasper port developed, first as a member of Sanford's staff and now has a state senator, says the Corps' delay in coming up with a timetable for releasing the site is hurting the site's potential development. Davis says private entities willing to invest in a portion of the site are reluctant to do so without that timetable.

Releasing the site from the disposal easement should be worked out as soon as possible. Without it, debates about its near- and long-term future are merely academic exercises, and that's not what private enterprise needs to build a business plan.

In the meantime, the environmental impacts of the channel-deepening project should be objectively weighed against its economic impacts, without the scales being tipped by the hand of regional politics.