Fragile marsh, rare fish are latest flashpoints in Savannah port fight

COLUMBIA — South Carolina’s skirmish with Georgia for port supremacy along the South Atlantic will focus this week on a rare marsh system and endangered fish that are in the way of bigger ships that Savannah leaders want for their harbor.

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control board is expected to decide Thursday whether to issue a water-quality permit that would allow the dredging and deepening of the Savannah River, where the port of Savannah is located.

At stake are untold millions in additional revenue that could flow to Savannah if larger ships can reach the Georgia port. But that won’t happen unless the Savannah River is deepened by about six feet, Georgia officials say.

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The Department of Health and Environmental Control, South Carolina’s chief environmental regulatory agency, is involved in the dredging dispute because the Savannah River is shared by both states.

The outcome of Thursday’s hearing is unlikely to end the dispute because the environmental agency’s is sure to be challenged by the losing party.

But if the board turns down the permit, it would further solidify South Carolina’s reservations about the dredging project’s impact on the environment.

The decision will be the most significant by S.C. environmental agency since Gov. Nikki Haley installed new board members earlier this year.

“We know this is a high-profile item and it will draw a number of interested parties,” DHEC spokesman Adam Myrick said of Thursday’s hearing in Columbia.

At issue for the environmental agency is whether the harbor-dredging project would increase the salinity of the Savannah River and decrease the amount of oxygen in the river.

Either could threaten an unusual, tidally influenced freshwater marsh and the federally protected shortnose sturgeon, a chorus of S.C. critics say. Georgia officials dispute that.

All told, some 1,200 acres of wetlands could be affected by the dredging, records show.

“It is a terribly damaging and expensive project,” said Charleston conservationist Dana Beach, a leading critic of the Savannah dredging. “The environmental damage is almost catastrophic.”

‘The green is dollars’

South Carolina and Georgia are racing to deepen their main ports so they can attract larger container ships that will begin moving through an expanded Panama Canal in 2014.

The state that has its port ready first could have the edge in drawing those ships.

Charleston’s harbor-deepening plans are not as far along as Savannah’s $600 million project because of funding squabbles.

Georgia officials say deepening Savannah’s shipping channel is vital to commerce. They also say South Carolina’s concerns about the environment are overblown.

They note that, unlike DHEC, Georgia’s state environmental agency has signed off on the project and plans are in place to offset any impacts from the Savannah dredging.

Georgia officials have been seeking to dredge the shipping channel since the 1990s, but environmental concerns have slowed their plans.

“There is a green aspect to this, but it is not the environment,” said Brian Robinson, a spokesman for Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal. “The green is dollars. This is exactly the sort of infrastructure project we need as a nation, as a region and as two states standing together.”

Robinson noted 40 percent of the Georgia port’s workforce is from South Carolina, mostly residents of Beaufort and Jasper counties.

But many government officials, business leaders and environmental groups in South Carolina say Charleston Harbor is more naturally suited to handle the larger ships.

Unlike Savannah, Charleston Harbor is nearer the ocean and dredging it would have fewer environmental impacts, they say.

In contrast, the Georgia port is miles up the Savannah River and more difficult for ships to reach, S.C. critics say. Dredging the channel could push saltwater farther up the river and into the rare marsh system in South Carolina’s Savannah National Wildlife Refuge, scientists have said.

Influenced by tides, the Savannah River’s freshwater marshes are fragile because salt water will kill the diversity of plants that thrive there. Dredging since the late 1800s has converted much of the freshwater system to salt or brackish marshes, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Fewer than 3,000 acres of tidal freshwater marsh remain on a stretch of the Savannah once estimated to have had 13,000 acres. Such freshwater marshes are hard to find in the Southeast.

With less oxygen and more salt water moving up the river, the shortnose sturgeon also could have trouble reproducing because its habitat would change. Spawning, egg development and habitat for fish larvae will be altered, according to a Sept. 30 DHEC staff assessment.

The National Marine Fisheries Service is studying how the port project could affect the federally protected endangered species and expects to render an opinion soon.

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~ by FSVSF Admin on 5 November, 2011.

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