The South Carolina Supreme Court’s decision to assume authority in the lawsuit over Georgia’s plans to dredge the Savannah River offers the possibility of a timely resolution to a particularly fractious issue. There is now good reason to hope that the court will overturn the ill-advised DHEC permit for the project.
Such a ruling, favorable to those who oppose the project, would be good news for the environmental future of the Savannah River.
It would provide for responsible consideration of the consequences of Georgia’s dredging proposal.
The haste with which the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control Board acted on that plan — including its controversial mitigation proposal to offset environmental damage — is clear evidence that the matter wasn’t adequately reviewed.
The right court ruling also could mean that a Jasper County port actually has a future in the near term. Under the present plan, Georgia would continue to use the site to deposit dredged material for the foreseeable future. Needless to say, using the site as a dump is incompatible with its development as a port.
And if the court moves wisely, it could prove instructive to Gov. Nikki Haley, who bears much of the responsibility for the heedless DHEC decision. After meeting with her Georgia counterpart last year, Gov. Haley urged the DHEC to reconsider its earlier rejection of the project.
The DHEC decision in November prompted legal challenges by the Maritime Commission, the Coastal Conservation League and other environmental groups — and a nearly unanimous resolution by the S.C. Legislature to void any dredging actions for the Savannah River taken by DHEC.
The Maritime Commission asserts that the law requires its concurrence with any environmental permitting by a South Carolina agency that affects the Savannah River. South Carolina and Georgia share the river.
The governor’s involvement also has been criticized by Charleston port interests, who question why the state’s chief executive would act in support of a project that could be competitively disadvantageous to the port of Charleston.
The dredging proposal would deepen the channel for the port of Savannah to 48 feet. Charleston is seeking federal approval to deepen its shipping channel to 50 feet to accommodate the new mammoth cargo ships that soon will be using the enlarged Panama Canal.
Mrs. Haley has defended her position, insisting that Charleston can successfully compete against the port of Savannah, assuming both deepening projects are done.
Fiscal hawks, however, question why the federal government would be willing to spend hundreds of millions to dredge two channels 120 miles apart. Ten East Coast ports are looking at similar projects.
Speaking at a book signing in Charleston on Monday, Mrs. Haley had no comment on the court’s decision, except to say, “We heard it, and it’s fine.”
She should welcome the possibility of a do-over on a decision that has put her at odds with the legislative branch, the coastal environmental community and state environmental agencies, including the Department of Natural Resources.
Remaining at loggerheads is not a formula for productive governance.